As Churchill's girls prepared for the final event at last year's 5A swimming championships, the 400-yard freestyle relay, they knew that the hopes of their first state title were on the line.
They also knew that the landscape of 5A swimming was about to change with powerful programs from Bend dropping from 6A to 5A this season, feeding their sense of urgency.
“They know them from the club meets. They know how fast they swim,” Churchill coach Megan Murphy said. “So they knew last year, that was it, because everything's going to be different in 2023. The girls just swam their hearts out.”
The Lancers won the relay to finish five points ahead of Crescent Valley and claim the 5A title. And now, with three members of two winning relays returning, along with two individual champions, they are prepared to contend again.
The addition of Mountain View, Bend, Summit and Caldera – teams that finished in the top 11 of the 6A meet last year – is certain to complicate Churchill's bid for a repeat.
“I think that changes the game for everybody in 5A, and it changes 6A without having those schools there,” Murphy said. “Bend has a really strong club program, and a lot of fast girls that will now be at our meet. I think our girls will do really well, it's just going to be a different game adding all these other swimmers.”
Churchill graduated Kylie Taylor, who won the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley and swam on the first-place 200 medley relay and 400 freestyle relay at last year's state meet before moving on to a college career at Pepperdine. But the Lancers have the three other members of those relays back in seniors Kelsey Wasikowski, Lauren Larsen and Emily Ashton.
The Arizona-bound Wasikowski set a 5A meet record in the 100 breaststroke last year (1:02.73) and would have contended in the 500 freestyle but was disqualified from the event at district. As a freshman in 2020, she won the 50 freestyle and was on the state champion 200 medley relay.
“That breaststroke time gave her some opportunities in club swimming to be at some of those higher-level meets,” Murphy said of Wasikowski, who swims for Team Eugene. “She's been training really hard. She keeps getting stronger. I think she's ready to swim her best at the state meet. She can swim anything.”
If Wasikowski opts to defend her title in the 100 breaststroke, she is likely to have some new competition in Mountain View senior Kinley Wigle, who swam 1:02.80 as the 6A runner-up last season. If Wasikowski goes for a second title in the 50 freestyle, she probably would have to beat the reigning champion and 5A record-holder in Wilsonville senior Helena Jones.
“There's a lot of high-level competition for the girls this year, which is really exciting to see at the state meet,” Murphy said.
Churchill also is counting on a big finish from Larsen, who won the 200 freestyle and was third in the 100 butterfly at state last year, and Ashton, who was seventh in the 100 butterfly and 11th in the 100 backstroke.
Wasikowski, Larsen and Ashton are the foundation for outstanding relays, but without Taylor, the Lancers will need to find some new blood. Junior Ruby Snawder and freshman Olivia Ashton are leading candidates.
“I think the girls will definitely be able to do fine in their relays,” Murphy said. “It's hard when you lose a swimmer like Kylie. And she was our backstroker, too. We've got some girls that have been working hard to be able to jump in those relays. They'll probably swim faster than they ever have in the season, is my hope.”
Lacking elite depth, Murphy must find a way to maximize her swimmers' points at state, much like she did when Churchill's boys team won the 5A title in 2020 with only four swimmers.
“When you only have four, it's different when you show up at state with like eight,” Murphy said. “And it will be steeper competition for those wild-card spots this year.
“The girls are really looking forward to it. It might turn out different for us this year than it did last year, but they're still excited to get to that meet and swim.”