If someone would’ve told Gig Harbor High School swim coach Mike Kelly at the start of the season that he would have 21 swimmers competing in the West Central District III meet at Mount Tahoma High School in February, he probably would have laughed at them.
With under 30 kids, this was Kelly’s smallest boys’ team in years. And although there were a few established swimmers, there were a lot of unknowns.
But a lot can happen in a few months — like the emergence of two freshmen swimmers, from relatively unknown commodities, to legitimate stars.
Gig Harbor freshmen Andrew Sexton and Michael Derouin dazzled at the district tournament, posting strong swims in individual events and relays and qualified for the state tournament.
“Last year, I wasn’t going too fast,” Sexton said. “I was struggling to break one minute in my 100 (yard freestyle). I’ve dropped a lot of time this year.”
He dropped about eight seconds off his 100 free. In the 200 free, he has dropped a whopping 30 seconds. How is that even possible?
“It’s the difference in training,” Kelly said. “Both kids had great foundations coming in. But I think it was really the first time — in the high school season, we train differently. Everything happens in three months. I think they benefited from the high school process of having two meets per week. In meets, that’s how you work the bugs out of a swimmers. You can work on their starts, their turns, their strategy for races.”
Kelly compared it to forging a sword, or a knife.
“You’re putting that steel in the fire, you pound it on, then put it in the water,” Kelly said. “You just put them in those pressure situations.”
Kelly would purposely place Sexton in the last event of meets, to teach him to deal with pressure.
“If I had a dollar for every time Andrew told me he didn’t want to go last,” Kelly said with a laugh. “But I told him that he’s going to do it, because he’ll need that experience. A lot of it is just getting athletes to believe in what we see in them as coaches.”
For Derouin, it was working on the fundamentals.
“(Kelly) really helped me work on the basics,” Derouin said. “That’s what I had the most trouble with. For everyone, it’s different. But for me, I knew that my turns and starts were pretty bad. So just all around, I improved.”
While there may have been some doubt within the swimmers themselves, there wasn’t any from Kelly.
“It was a tremendous boost to have good athletes come in and being freshmen, they don’t necessarily realize they’re good athletes,” Kelly said. “Being able to recognize hidden talents, it was obvious the freshmen class had some gems that just needed a little polishing. I think we accomplished that.”
Sexton qualified for the state in the 200 free, 200 free relay and 400 free relay. Sexton took second overall in the 200 free, clocking in at 1 minute, 51.72 seconds. Just behind him were teammates Bryce Brabham, who came in third at 1:55.52, and Max Andren, fourth at 1:55.85.
Andren, a senior, also moved on in the 500 freestyle, clocking in at 5:19.79, good for fourth place.
“(Andren) is just a good, solid kid,” Kelly said. “He’s given us four great years of hard work, always listens well. He’s always trying to listen to what we say, and use that as advice to make himself a better swimmer. He helped us out with a couple of relays.”
Suddenly, Gig Harbor has a strong team heading into the state tournament. The strength of the team’s two freshmen are a big reason why.
“It’s awesome to be going to state,” Derouin said. “Everyone has been telling us that we’re the first freshmen at the school in a while to be at the district tournament. So, to go to state is really cool.”
For Sexton, the improvement has been dramatic. Now he’ll get a chance to showcase his ability on the state’s biggest stage.
“It’s what I’ve been working toward this whole year,” Sexton said. “It’s super exciting.”
The Class 3A state swim meet will take place at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Feb. 16 and 17.
“I’d like to see everyone do a best time for the season,” Kelly said. “As a coach, that’s what you want to see. Step up to the challenge, competing against the best in the state. Both the free relays have a little more time drop left in them. Getting the freshmen the experience of swimming at the state meet — we’re going to stick them in the fire, get them that seasoning that will help them in the next years of their high school career.”
For Peninsula, Landen Bullock and Ethan Brown advanced to the state meet. Bullock qualified in the 500 free with a time of 5:15.67, taking third. Brown qualified in the 100 backstroke at 58.11, taking second place. Diver Time Poe will also head to state, as he took second in districts for diving with 365.35 points.