By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Lehla Irwin should have been a math major.
With a crop of especially fast swimmers on this year’s Analy High School swim squad, whose fastest times are separated by razor-thin margins, coach Irwin has had to crunch numbers, calculate times and sort relay combinations more than ever before.
Who should race what? What combinations of swimmers will make the fastest relay squad?
“This is probably one of the strongest I have had in 13 years,” she said.
Competition is tight for spots on relay teams, competition is tight for spots in certain disciplines, competition is tight everywhere. Ask some swimmers and they say Analy practices can be more grueling than meets.
And that’s a good thing this season, because there are far more practices and fewer meets than ever before.
A move by five schools to break for the Coastal Mountain League and leave the Sonoma County League at its standard eight schools has left the Tigers alone in the pool to fight it out amongst themselves.
While Irwin is stuck calculating who should swim where at a given meet, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the Tigers’ sheer dominance this season.
Top to bottom, Analy is all over the Empire’s fastest-time rankings this season.
In the eight individual events, an Analy swimmer is tops in four and second in five. The fastest times in the three relay events? The Tigers are fastest in each.
The Tigers picked a fine season to shine — this year represents the first-ever staging of a state high school swimming championship in California.
“I have a pretty deep team,” Irwin said. “A lot of them swim different events. Most of them can swim pretty much anything.”
Sophomore Marie Alameida is definitely a swimmer who can do pretty much anything.
Alameida has clocked the Empire’s fastest times in the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle and second-fastest times in the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke.
She’s also raced on all three of Analy’s relay teams.
“The relay is the same as last year but I feel like we have all gotten a lot faster,” she said.
Good thing, because this season the Tigers, and all teams in the Sonoma County League, have fewer meets to reach qualifying times for the postseason.
The exodus from the SCL to the Coastal Mountain League had dropped the number of competitors from about 250 to 150, Irwin said, and it’s reduced the number of meets swimmers can use to qualify for the ultra-competitive North Coast Section meet.
Fewer meets means fewer cracks at qualifying times in a variety of disciplines. There was a stretch mid-season where the Tigers went about a month between competitions.
Irwin remained philosophical about the change.
“We get more time to work on technique at the beginning of the season,” she said.
For a swimmer as talented as Alameida, more meets means she can qualify in more races than she’ll actually participate in at the North Coast Section meet, but it gives her more options on race day to swim in the event that best suits her.
“It’s kind of like you have less chances to fail, that you have to succeed more frequently,” she said.
“It’s definitely harder to have less chances to qualify for NCS,” said senior Lily Maxfield, who has posted the Empire’s second-best time in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley, both behind Maria Carrillo High School junior Piper Brockley.
Even with fewer shots at it, plenty of Tigers are racing to top-caliber times that should qualify.
Alameida and Maxfield are expected to team up with junior Lani Auva’a and senior Christy Schlutius for the 200 medley relay in a unit that could qualify for the state meet.
“I’m super excited about that,” Maxfield said of the introduction of a state meet. “It’s always been a rumor that it might happen. It’s my senior year so it’s my first and last chance to qualify for the state meet.”
And for a swimmer like Maxfield, who thrives in competitive meets, the possibility of the best of the best in the state converging on one event is thrilling.
“It’s fun to swim fast and see other people swim fast. I love that experience,” she said. “All of California? That will be really exciting.”
All of California is right, but there just might be some familiar faces at the state meet May 22 and 23 in Clovis.
“I think it always helps to have someone right next to me, pushing me,” Maxfield said.
“Especially at those meets when it’s so fast. The smallest of margins can make the difference.”
For the Tigers, who have dominated this season by the largest of margins, the season just may come down to the smallest.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.