After a successful first season with the Powell High School girls’ swim team, Lady Panthers head coach Bob Smartt is relying on a youth movement to duplicate that team’s success.
Last season saw the Lady Panthers finish third at the 3A State Swim and Dive Championships, with swimmers placing in the top six in seven individual events and two relays. With the loss of five seniors to graduation, including state placers JuliaKay O’Neill and Rylie Kannard, Smartt will rely on a combination of a talented group of returners and a host of fresh faces to make up the difference.
“We are very pleased that the team has grown from 20 athletes last year to 26 this year, including 13 new swimmers and divers,” Smartt said. “We are a young team, with only two seniors. Our senior leaders are Caitlyn Miner, who broke three school records last year, and Katrina Twitchell, who is our top freestyle sprinter and a state finalist.”
Other returning state finalists are Ashlyn Aguirre (fly), Anna Fuller (500 free and IM), Emma Karhu (diving), Elizabeth Liggett (IM) and Addison Moretti. (200 and 500 free).
Other state qualifiers on the team include Maddison Hackenberg (diving), Rachel Kunz (fly and IM), Lauren Lejeune (fly), Madison Lowery (50 free) and Sidney O’Brien (back and free).
“We are excited that we have one of the strongest dive programs in the state with six divers including Sophomore Emma Karhu, who placed fifth at state last year, and is primed to move up in the ranks due to graduations.”
Last year’s teams exceeded expectations, as evidenced by a quick glance at the Hall of Fame board.
“We got seven swims on the Hall of Fame, the first time we’d had that many I believe since 1997,” Smartt said. “We moved from sixth the previous year to third [at state]. We had 17 of the 20 girls become state qualifiers, which I think was the highest percentage in the state. This year, we have a large number of novices, so we’re not going to be able to do that kind of 85 percent ratio. But we’re going to work on it. We’d rather have the numbers, and they’ll be state qualifiers as sophomores or juniors.”
As has been the case for years, the Lady Panthers’ biggest rival will be the Lady Tigers from Lander. Also expected to be in the mix this season will be Jackson High School, who is dropping back to 3A after a couple of seasons at 4A. Worland and Sublette County are expected to field strong teams. The Lady Panthers open the 2018 season this Saturday at the Lander Pentathlon.
“While team scores are not compiled for the meet, athletes are permitted to compete in five individual events, which will give the team a good indication on our early season training,” Smartt said.
Now in his 24th year of coaching, Smartt continues to pull double duty, coaching the Lady Panthers in the fall, then returning to coach the winter season in Colorado. Smartt said he had too much fun last season to not return to Powell.
“I love working with the kids here,” he said. “It’s very different than Colorado, where everything is extremely specialized and dominated by club athletes in virtually every high school sport.”
That specialization leads many athletes to focus on just one sport, rather than participating in several. Smartt said he enjoys coaching the Lady Panthers because it’s not all about swimming.
“Here, it’s much more like the amateur ideal, where girls will do three or four sports or three or four activities,” he said. “The kids are in FFA, they’ll do speech and debate. They’ll have summer activities, some will have jobs. That’s refreshing, versus the extreme concentration you get in a place like Colorado, where parents are worried about college scholarships.”
As for expectations for this season, Smartt said the team would love to be on the podium at the end of the state meet in October.
“At state, three teams at the end of the meet are on the podium and get trophies,” he said. “It would be fun to bring some hardware back this year from Laramie.”
Smartt said Jackson dropping back down to 3A will pose an additional challenge, creating a potential logjam at the top of the 3A standings. The Lady Panthers will compete against Jackson this weekend in Lander.
“I’ve already done some research on them, and I want to see what they have in terms of freshmen,” Smartt said. “But I think we have a chance to hold our own with them.”
Another aspect of coaching in Powell that factored into Smartt’s decision to return was the support he received from the community.
“I tend to be a loyal person, and last year I got wonderful support from the AD, the principal, the parents and the kids,” he said. “When you get that kind of strong support, it makes me really want to be loyal, and come back and be with the kids.”