Girls defy the odds to win state swimming championship

Scott Swanson

On paper, it didn’t look like Sweet Home’s girls really had much of a chance to walk away with a state swimming championship trophy as they entered the finals Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Tualatin Hills Aquatic Center.

Looming in the next lanes were swimmers from Catlin Gabel, a Portland-area private school whose roster is stocked with club swimmers.

Catlin Gabel had seven individual qualifiers, at least one in every event of Friday’s preliminaries swimmers, and in seven individual finals events – three in the breaststroke alone, in which Sweet Home did not have an entrant. Plus, both teams had qualified in all three relays.

“On paper we couldn’t beat them,” said Coach Doug Peargin. “They had the numbers on us.”

But Sweet Home pulled it out by delivering in the pool.

By the finals on Saturday, the Huskies had qualified for the finals in all of their nine individual events and all three relays. Catlin Gabel had seen its swimmers fail to make the finals in six of 13 individual events.

By the end of the competition on Saturday, the Huskies had scored 69 points to Catlin Gabel’s 50.

“They didn’t swim well,” Peargin said. “We swam tremendous. On paper, they had the power. They just didn’t put it in the water.

“It’s not a surprise, because I know how we compete. But it was a helluva upset.”

La Grande was third with 32 points, and Marshfield and Tillamook tied for fourth with 26. Salem Academy was seventh (17), followed by Sisters (16) and Marist (15).

The Newport boys, to no one’s surprise, won the boys competition with 90 points, nearly double second-place Marshfield (46). Salem Academy finished fourth with 26.

Sweet Home’s girls came through in every event, equaling or exceeding their preliminary finishes in all but four of their 11 finals events, and winning the 200 Medley and Freestyle relays and placing second in the 400 Freestyle Relay, which gave them double points.

“Every girl on the team placed in four events. You can’t do better,” said Peargin, who confessed he wasn’t sure how many team titles he’s won in a 48-year career at Sweet Home. His first-ever with the girls team came in 2016, he said. The Huskies placed second last year to North Bend, which moved up to 5A this year.

Though it was the third team championship in which senior Sarah Hewitt has played a contributing role in her four years as a Husky, she was ecstatic as she and her four younger teammates, freshmen Malia Hewitt – her younger sister, Jamie Seward and Chloe Tyler, and junior Megan Hager, exchanged bear hugs as they waited to get their championship trophy.

“I’m beyond words right now. I can’t even believe it,” Sarah Hewitt said. “I knew we had a shot and that’s all we needed. That’s what Coach has always said, ‘As long as you’ve got a shot.’

“I didn’t want to think about anything until it was done. We just kept encouraging each other and we stayed positive and we did what we needed to do. So I’m very happy with the outcome.”

Hager was the only individual champion for the Huskies, placing first in the 100 Freestyle – her third title in a row in that event. She beat Marist’s Lauren Barry, who edged Hager in the event in the district race the week before.

“Every setback’s just a setup for a come-back,” said Hager, who swam 52.33 after setting a school record of 51.86 on Friday in the preliminaries. “I’m insanely proud of my team for what we’ve accomplished. I expected that all of us were just going to put out our best effort and we all did. For me, that worked out doing same things I did last year.”

She lost in the 50 to Catlin Gabel sophomore Lizzy Cook, who set a new 4A/3A/2A/1A record in 23.50.

Hager’s time was 24.10 in what was her third-straight runner-up finish in the event. She set a school record of 24.09 the day before.

“I’m not going to let someone else’s times discourage me,” she said of her finish behind Cook. “If the state record-holder swims it again next year, maybe I’ll set a state record. No matter what happens, I’m just going to try my best.”

Tyler was third in the 200 Freestyle (1:59.24) and sixth in the 100 Freestyle (55.57) – setting personal bests in both.

“In the prelims I thought I was going to do it and it was kind of disappointing that I didn’t,” she said of the 200, in which she broke two minutes for the first time. “But I knew coming back I had a chance to do it in the finals and I did it.”

She said she might have gone a little faster in the 100 if she had warmed down more after the 200, as they were held almost an hour apart.

Malia Hewitt was second in the 100 Breaststroke (1:07.17), in which winner Eva Carlson of Catlin Gabel set a state record of 1:04.00, and fourth in the 200 Individual Medley (2:12.23). Hewitt’s finals time was almost a second slower than the 1:06.97 she swam in the prelims, but she was well ahead of the rest of the field.

“I did all right,” she said. “I have some improvements to make, always. It was really special because this was my sister’s senior year and I wanted to make it a good one. So we just tried our hardest and it turned out really well.”

Hewitt also finished fourth in the 200 Individual Medley (2:12.23).

Seward and Sarah Hewitt swam in all three relays, so they were limited to one individual event each.

Seward was fourth in the 100 Backstroke (1:01.28). Hewitt was fourth in the 200 Freestyle (2:01.63).

The relays were a gold mine of points for the Huskies, as the Hewitts, Seward and Hager combined to win the 200 Medley in a school-record 1:51.09, and then barely missed the state record of 1:40.25 the Huskies set in 2017 in the 200 Freestyle Relay, clocking 1:40.38. Without Hager in the 400 Freestyle Relay they took second behind Catlin Gabel (3:39.07) in 3:43.43, but with a 59-32 lead going into the final event, they had the title in the bag.

“I had a prety good idea that we had won. But I wanted to be safe,” Seward said.

She said the relays are her favorite events in high school swimming, which, she said has been “the most fun I’ve had swimming in my life.”

“I just love my team and I’m really proud of them and happy,” she said. “I knew we had a chance, and I knew we had to fight for it. I just went hard.”

The only Sweet Home boy to qualify for state was senior Brad Wolthuis, who made it in off a third-place finish in the 50 Freestyle at districts and fifth place in the 100.

He didn’t get past the preliminaries, but Wolthuis posted personal bests in both events, finishing ninth in the 50 (23:59) and 11th in the 100 (52.90) – one place above where he was seeding.

“It was a super surprise that I made it.,” Wolthuis said. “A little less in the 50, because I placed third. But in the 100 I was really surprised because I placed fifth in the district. It was a good surprise.

“I swam pretty well. Some good PR’s. It’s nice to drop time, especially in a big meet like this, and I moved up a place in the 100. There’s only so much you can do.

“It was definitely fun – all the minute and a half of swimming.”

Peargin said his team richly deserved everything they got.

“They swam everything they had to,” he said. “Plus, they set three school records. They swam their hearts out. I couldn’t be prouder of them. Not only are they good swimmers, those are great people. They’re just great kids. 4.00 students. They don’t miss practice. They work their hearts out to be better, as a human and as a swimmer.

“I’m just really proud of those kids. They put in a lot of time. If you’re going to be good, you’ve got to put the miles in. And they do it. I couldn’t be happier for them.”