Swimming: Fresh wave of talent

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There’s a new look in the pool this season in the Flathead Valley.

Two new coaches are leading a host of new swimmers, some who may be familiar to fans in the area.

Flathead and Glacier have changed coaches, with KATS club coach Major Robinson leading the program in 2017-18.

“I’m super pumped to be taking over the high school team,” Robinson said. “I’ve gotten to work with a lot of kids year round with KATS, but I get to work with a whole new group for the high school season. It’s a pretty awesome thing to get a big group of kids excited about swimming.

“All the kids are really excited about the potential that the teams have ... We should have a swing (of success). The Flathead boys are going to be a top three team and the Glacier girls are going to be a top three team. They’re excited to work hard and go out and achieve that. We have a lot of talent in the pool.”

There are about 50 kids out between the schools, but the relatively small number packs a big punch.

With Robinson in the fold, a handful of new swimmers have joined or rejoined the team from club swimming, including two of the most talented swimmers in Kalispell history.

Flathead senior James Bouda, a Wyoming commit, is back on the Braves swimming team after sticking to club the last two seasons. Bouda, who placed second in the 50 freestyle and 100 backstroke his freshman season at Glacier, qualified for the junior nationals next week in Iowa, where he will race six events (50- and 100-meter freestyle, 200 individual medley, 100 and 200 breaststroke and 100 butterfly). Braves junior Jace Reed will be a favorite to final for the boys in the backstroke and butterfly.

The Glacier girls are bolstered by the return of junior A.J. Popp, who set nearly every school record as a freshman two season ago. Popp placed in the 200 IM, 500 free and 200 and 400 freestyle relays two seasons ago. She also qualified for junior nationals next week, where she will run the 100 and 200 backstrokes and 200 butterfly.

Wolfpack sophomore Caroline Dye, a transfer from Whitefish’s state championship team last season, placed in the 200 IM and finaled in the 100 fly as a freshman and continues to get stronger. Senior Bailey Rhodes, a new addition who homeschooled until this year, should also add top-end depth for the Wolfpack.

Like the Kalispell schools, the North Valley swim teams have a new face at head coach as well.

Emily von Jentzen will lead Whitefish and Columbia Falls, each school dealing with turnover at the top of its roster.

Whitefish girls, which won the Class A state title last season, have just two returners from that team and only four swimmers total. Annie Sullivan, a junior, finaled in the 500 freestyle and the 400 freestyle relay for the Bulldogs last season and should be one of the faster girls in the pool.

“It would be awesome if they can win state again with only four girls,” von Jentzen said. “They defintely have talent among those four girls.”

The Whitefish boys have a bit more depth than the girls and should also field talent that can make some noise at state, including sophomore Alex Stein who powered pair of relays for the Bulldogs as a freshman.

Columbia Falls graduated its most successful star in years, with state-record setter Colton Babcock taking off for college.

The Wildcats and Kats still will have numbers, with eight boys and 12 girls out.

“The caliber of the character of the kids is great,” von Jentzen said. “There’s definitely a lot of potential in the pool and we’re excited about it.”

Bigfork has its biggest numbers in five years as a team. The Valkyries have 16 new swimmers and 20 total. Ally Pancoast, Ahna Fox and Aubrey Halverson are some of the more accomplished swimmers making their return.

“I’m really excited,” Vals coach Charlie Ball said. “They’ve made a lot of progress in the first 10 days that we’ve had. I’m excited to see the growth they’re going to have throughout the season.”

The season opens today at noon at the Kalispell Invitational at The Summit. All five Flathead Valley schools will attend along with the Class AA schools from Great Falls and Missoula.

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