By Jeff Nations
The Virginia High School League's decision to adopt a new classification system starting this school year has hardly been universally praised, but none of the area's swim coaches have much to complain about this year.
The new five-class alignment -- 1A and 2A combined, plus 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A -- have placed each of the area's schools competing in this weekend's state competition in a better position to contend than they ever had in the old Group A/AA combined and Group AAA format.
Sherando, which will compete in Saturday's Class 4A state meet at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, never had the depth to make much of a dent in the state competition. That should change somewhat this year, as the Warriors have swimmers seeded high enough to contend for an individual state championship or at least a top-eight finish.
It's the same with Central (Class 3A) and Strasburg (Class 2A), which have only two swimmers apiece in Christiansburg for today's state competition but could still come home with top-eight finishes.
Sherando senior Kelsey Dingman likely has the best opportunity to claim a state championship. A talented sprinter and regular state qualifier, Dingman is seeded fourth in both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events. Dingman is coming off wins in both those events at last week's 4A North regional meet, after winning both in the Conference 21 meet two weeks ago.
"She's had a good week of practice, and I know she's really motivated," Warriors coach Joe Knight said. "There are three girls seeded ahead of her, Caitlin Horner from Grafton and two swimmers from Jamestown. I think she was a little surprised by that, but when confronted with something like that it tends to bring out the competitor in Kelsey."
Teammate Laura Ferguson is also swimming in the 50 free, and based on time is the 13th seed in an event where little separates the competitors.
Sherando also qualified two relays for state competition, which will definitely help in the team scoring. That's guaranteed -- provided they don't get disqualified -- for the Warriors' 200 medley relay of Brenna Sharp, Brianna English, Dingman and Ferguson. That quartet is one of only eight relays to qualify for states in that event, meaning there's an automatic spot in the championship finals. Those same four will also swim in the 200 free relay.
In the 4A boys meet, Sherando senior James Williams earned state qualifying times in both the 100 and 200 free, and teammate Mark Restrepo placed in the top six at regionals to earn a spot in the 200 free.
Williams, Tommy McVey, Ethan Medrano and Restrepo will combine for the Warriors' 200 free relay, and Williams, Daniel Milburn, Medrano and Restrepo will swim the 400 free relay.
"Both our boys and girls had really good seasons," Knight said. "It's been a while since we've had boys qualify as individuals, and we've never qualified two boys relays."
Central's two swimmers also have a chance to make some waves in today's 3A meet. Trevor Wolf has the seventh-fastest time in the 50 free and is 10th fastest going in to the 100 free, while teammate Jonathan Feaster is 11th heading into the 100 breaststroke. Those two helped Central's boys finish sixth in last week's 3A East regional meet in Richmond. The Falcons might have had even more state qualifiers, if not for state standards that were identical to the 4A meet. That's something that could change next year.
"The good thing is that because states is broken into smaller groups, they both have a good chance to be in the top eight," Falcons coach Steve Shaffer said.
Despite the solid seedings, Wolf isn't even swimming his best event, the 200 free, today in Christiansburg.
"We focused on the 50 and 100 even though he felt like the 200 is his best event because we just don't get enough pool time for him to be as competitive with some of the year-round swimmers," Shaffer said.
Strasburg also has two boys swimmers in today's 2A state meet. Josh Stickles qualified for both the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, while Ian Priest qualified for the 200 free.
Stickles swam at states last year in two different events, the 500 free and 100 backstroke.
"I had some other swimmers capable of doing the 500 free this year, and he decided he wanted to try the butterfly even though he's just as good in the backstroke," Strasburg coach Ina Rae Crisman said. "Because of his versatility, we were able to use him where we needed him this year."
Stickles is seeded fifth in the 200 IM and fourth in the butterfly, and Priest is the 13th seed in the 200 free.