High schools in the greater Seattle area have dominated the boys swimming and diving state championships for the past decade, particularly in Class 3A.
Bainbridge is the two-time defending 3A state champion. Bellevue won consecutive titles before that, in 2015 and 2016. Lakeside of Seattle went back-to-back in 2012 and 2013.
And Mercer Island, which hasn’t missed the podium in more than a decade, has won seven 3A titles since 2006 — including five in a row from 2006-11.
All of these schools have consistently reached the podium in the past decade. And, the northern schools, which often feature the state’s top talent, project strong again in 2019.
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Schools in the South Sound have reached the podium in 3A just four times in that span. Hazen took fourth in 2015, Kennedy Catholic fourth in 2013, and Mount Rainier placed fourth in 2010 and was the runner-up in 2009.
Stadium — the only team in Pierce County to win a title the past 10 years, claiming the 4A crown in 2012 before dropping down to 3A in 2016 — is aiming to shake up the 3A classification this season.
The Tigers finished fifth at the state championship meet a season ago, one spot shy of the podium, and return most of last year’s squad.
“We’ve definitely hit our stride,” Stadium junior Gabriel Nickels said. “I would say the group has really come together a lot better ... so I’m really excited to see how we do.
“I think we have a much better shot than last year. A lot of our swimmers have been hitting best times, and we’ve been working really hard in practice.”
Nickels is Stadium’s top swimmer. As a sophomore, he earned a runner-up finish in the 500-yard freestyle — and was 0.25 seconds off of an All-American consideration time — and tied for third in the 200 free.
“Last year, I was a little bit disappointed with how I did, not that my times were bad, but I really wanted to take first in something,” Nickels said. “So, I think this year, it will be another great opportunity to try to be in the top spot.”
Nickels also swam on two of Stadium’s state-placing relays last season. The Tigers took third in the 200 medley relay, eighth in the 400 free relay, and return three of the four legs from each of those races.
Another junior, Bryce Soriano, also swam a leg of those relays, and is another top returner for the Tigers. He was the 3A runner-up in the 100 breaststroke as a sophomore — and 0.67 seconds off of an All-American consideration time — and notched a fifth-place finish in the 200 individual medley.
Between Nickels, Soriano, senior Liam Casey-Minick — who was another relay leg, and swam in the consolation finals last season in the 200 IM and 100 butterfly — and others, Stadium appears to have the pieces needed to contend. Sophomore Valen Holmes, who placed eighth in the diving competition, is also back.
“I think we could get top four at state, as long as we keep working hard and having a good mentality,” Soriano said.
Both Nickels and Soriano, who are prominent local club swimmers, said they opted to turn out for high school swimming for the team atmosphere.
“At the club, it’s definitely less of a team environment,” Nickels said. “Here, we are more of a unit. The club team is more individual-based. It’s more fun to be a leader on the high school team. ... We have a lot of team bonding sessions, and it’s just a fun group of guys to work with.”
Soriano said the team structure that high school swimming provides is also good preparation for college swimming, which is also team focused. Both Soriano and Nickels aspire to swim at the Division I level, and are in the process of looking at potential schools.
“I think leadership is important, just having a good environment and having a positive attitude, and just getting along with everyone on the team,” Soriano said.
Stadium hasn’t reached the podium as a team at the swimming and diving state championships since 2013 — again in 4A — when it finished runner-up to Kamiak.
But first-year coach Mark Amberson, who has also assisted at the University of Puget Sound the past several years, believes the Tigers have the talent at the top to make a good postseason run.
“They’re strong enough that they will provide the engine to give Stadium a pretty solid showing,” Amberson said.