By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Of the 23 individual swimmers and 13 relay teams who will be representing Redwood Empire schools at the North Coast Section Swimming and Diving Championships in Concord Friday and Saturday, none has a better chance at victory than Riley Scott.
Competing at the Sonoma County League championships last week, the tall Petaluma senior left a lot of swimmers in her wake — and a simmering little controversy, too.
The debate is behind her as Scott prepares for the section meet. But her situation illustrates the ever-increasing tension between club and high school sports, and similar disputes are likely to arise in the coming years. The SCL may well change its bylaws to better define them.
Scott, this newspaper’s reigning Female Swimmer of the Year, has long been dedicated to her swim club, the Marin Pirates, and she is not alone in that.
Almost every local champion belongs to Neptune Swimming or the Sebastopol Sea Serpents or another private organization. Most practice primarily with their clubs, doing just enough with their high school teams to allow them to swim in league races.
As a junior, Scott practiced sparingly with Petaluma High, but she showed up to compete in dual meets. Trojans coach Liz Seymour expected a similar arrangement this year, but it didn’t happen. Scott missed time with her high school team to practice with Pirates relay squads for the prestigious National Club Swimming Association’s Junior Nationals in Orlando, Fla., in March. And she swam so well in Orlando, establishing her best time in the 100-yard breaststroke and nearly doing the same in the 200, that NCSA offered her a chance to join its All-Star Junior Team at the Irish Long Course Swimming Championships in Dublin, in late May.
The only problem, in the eyes of the Scott family, is that CIF eligibility rules did not allow Riley to swim in both international meets and high school meets during the same season. Scott had to choose.
She opted for the trip to Ireland, and hasn’t regretted the decision for a minute.
Not only did Scott have an opportunity to swim for her country, but it was valuable experience in the sort of long-course pool — 50 meters rather than the 25 yards customary here — that will be used for the 2016 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. Scott’s fellow USA swimmers even voted her a team captain, which allowed her to spend time with a visiting representative of the American embassy in Ireland.
“Riley is planning on being a political science and math major at USC, with a possible eye to working for the state department or CIA, so the experience was very valuable,” said her father, Shannon Scott. “And Riley wasn’t shy about taking that advantage. So things happened out of the pool that were very important to her, too.”
In effect, Scott didn’t swim for Petaluma High at all this year. But she wanted to compete at the NCS championships, one of the most closely watched high school meets in the country and her only chance to achieve All-America status as a senior. And not having swum all year for her prep team, the only way she could qualify for NCS was to compete at the league championships.
Most of the swim coaches in the SCL did not want her there. A finite number of kids get to swim in the finals of each event, and the coaches felt it would be wrong to have Scott bump a girl who might be slower or less experienced, but who practiced and competed all year with her team. Some wondered why Scott, who has been accepted to USC and has already met time standards for the 2016 Olympic Trials, felt obliged to take part in the NCS meet.
“This has never happened before. Never, ever,” one coach said. “And we’ve had some pretty great swimmers out of the SCL.”
Unfortunately for the coaches, there was nothing in the SCL rules to exclude Scott. With Seymour working to broker a solution, and with meet director and Analy coach Lehla Irwin in contact with NCS officials, they found a compromise. Scott would swim “time trial” laps in the Thursday preliminaries, but would not garner any points for Petaluma.
“The only questionable thing that happened from our viewpoint, if high school swimming is a team sport, the other coaches took away a bunch of points from the Petaluma team by not having Riley swim in the finals,” Shannon Scott said. “That was OK with us, but I thought that was a little bit of a strong-arm tactic.”
Because Riley had no previous seed times in 2015, she swam the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke in the slowest heats. She dominated, of course, swimming virtually by herself in the pool. In fact, she broke meet records in both events.
As the schools of the SCL competed in the finals that Friday at the Petaluma Swim Center, Scott was elsewhere. She will swim at the NCS meet wearing her Petaluma uniform, but Seymour will not be there; instead, Scott will be assisted by her Marin Pirates coach, Warren Lager.
Despite all the kerfuffle, Scott is poised for big things.
She isn’t the only local kid with a chance to medal. Maria Carrillo’s Piper Brockley is seeded third in the 200-yard IM and seventh in the 100 breast, Analy’s Lani Auva’a is 10th in the 100 butterfly and the 100 backstroke, and her Tigers teammate Lily Maxfield in 10th in the 100 breast.
But Scott has reasonable aspirations of winning. Last year she won the 200 IM and finished second in the 100 breast. This year she is seeded second in the 200 IM and fourth in the 100 breast, and those seeds are based exclusively on her times at the SCL championships — the only high school meet she swam in 2015. Scott was jetlagged for those races, having returned from Ireland less than 48 hours before getting in the pool.
“I was pretty tired,” she said. “My flight home, I left in the morning and it was like a 24-hour day of sunlight, so it was hard to sleep on the plane.”
Though her senior year has been odd, and not necessarily what she had hoped for, Scott says she would love to leave on a high note. The day after the NCS championships, she leaves for USC. This year, for the first time, the CIF will be holding state swim championships. They’re in Clovis a week after the sections meets, but Scott will not participate. She plans to start her long-course training instead.
“That makes NCS an even more exciting meet this year,” Scott said. “Winning at NCS would be such a fun experience. A lot of those girls I’ve known since I was 10, and all through high school. The 100 breast, all five of the top swimmers are senior girls.”
Meanwhile, the swim coaches of the SCL are hoping to avoid future standoffs. This week they submitted proposed rule changes for 2015-16. Those amendments include a stipulation that no swimmer be allowed to compete at the league championships without at least one seed time from a high school race.
The coaches acknowledge that Riley Scott is a great swimmer. They just don’t think she’s a high school swimmer.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@press democrat.com or on Twitter @Skinny_Post.