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BOZEMAN – They raced together most of the way, but the fourth leg finally made the difference as Helena High won the final heat of the boys 400 relay to wrap up the first day of the 2019 State Swim Meet. It was a sign of things to come.

“This 400 free relay was spectacular so a good way to end the first day,” Helena coach Julia Shannon said.

Coaches from around the state agreed.

“I’m really looking forward to watching what happens in the relays,” said Missoula swim coach Helen Houlihan.

“They’re going to be fast and it’s going to be fun,” Great Falls coach Ed McNameee said. “On the guys’ side I think that could be the difference all the way from second to sixth, it’s going to be that close, that tight."

Missoula Hellgate has been the class of Montana swimming for the past five years, but as their program has grown, so has the number of swimmers in Missoula.

“We feel great. We brought 80 kids from Missoula for three schools. We have a lot of kids in the finals tomorrow,” Houlihan said. “We had a tremendous amount of best swims from everybody – from our newest swimmers all the way up to our fastest swimmers so it’s all we can ask for is them to swim their best. That’s the goal.”

Since everyone got a chance to swim, the celebrations from swimmers, coaches and fans didn’t always correlate simply to the winners as cheers echoed throughout the Bozeman Aquatic Center regardless of the heat number.

“We have not had that level of depth on our girls’ team in the eight years I’ve been coaching this team and I am so proud of them particularly given the fact that we have so many freshmen and sophomores on our team,” Bozeman coach Siobhan Gilmartin said. “They rocked it. They stepped up to the block and took it seriously and they raced.”

“We had 86% best times coming into today so we hit our stride, hit our taper well so now we got to go back for tomorrow’s swims and it’s going to be a tight race tomorrow,” McNamee said.

Hellgate looks to improve upon streak

The Knights have swept both the boys and girls top spots for the past five years and they want to see that continue.

“It’s just super exciting because it just shows how dominant Missoula swimming has been and it’s really awesome to keep that legacy going,” senior Katharine Berkoff said.

Berkoff owns the top qualifying times in both the 100 free (50.76 seconds) and 100 backstroke (55.09) going into Saturday’s finals.

She is joined by teammates Finn Westenfelder with wins in the 50 free (22.11) and 100 free (48.21). And Saywer Keyes in the 200 free (1:47.60) and 500 free (4:47.46).

The Knights also own the top times in five of the six relays.

But they also had swimmers step up for the Knights without the top times and qualified many to the finals.

“Personal best swims and he just challenged a couple of the leaders in those lanes and it was exciting to see so it was a great day for Dane (Becker),” Houlihan pointed out as swimmers bobbed along through their cool downs after.

Double winners

There were 11 swimmers who earned the top spots in their respective finals.

For the first time, they will hold separate AA and AB finals which impacted how the swimmers were filtered into the finals from their preliminary rounds.

Bozeman got top performances by Erin McKinney in the 200 IM (2:14.55) and 100 breaststroke (1:08.07).

Butte’s Catherine Russo won the 50 free (24.02) and 100 fly (57.06).

Missoula Hellgate’s Berkoff, Westenfelder and Keyes all doubled for the Knights.

Billings Central’s Jack Leuthold won the 200 free (1:49.53) and 500 free (4:57.23). Julia Peterson won the 50 free (24.81) and 100 free (54.61). Bennett Apostol won the 100 back (1:01.53) and 200 IM (2:13.89).

Whitefish junior Preston Ring won the 50 free (22.20) and 100 free (48.78) and senior Annie Sullivan won the 100 breaststroke (1:15.40), 500 free (5:38.03). Freshman Ada Qunell won the 100 fly (1:02.99) and 200 IM (2:16.27).

Final races on the horizon

The emotions were just below the surface for some of the seniors who recognized the end approaching to their high school careers.

Billings Central’s Leuthold said, “It’s kind of weird. We were talking about that in our last relay. It just seemed to fly by, but we’re trying to soak it in. It’s a little hard for a long meet, but we’re trying.”

And for Hellgate’s Berkoff who has consistently been one of the most decorated high school and club swimmers from Montana over her career, it’s starting to sink in.

“Today’s been really fun so far, but I know that after the meet tomorrow I’ll be a little emotional,” Berkoff said. “These are some of my best friends so it’s really cool to be able to do it with them and a lot of my best friends are seniors this year so we’ll all be graduating and we’ll all be crying together which will be awesome.”

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Email Lindsay Rossmiller at lindsay.rossmiller@406mtsports.com or find her on Twitter @LindsayRossmill.

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