Grizzlies poised for SSC repeat

Those who cannot remember the past, the saying goes, are condemned to repeat it.

And then there's the Ashland High swim team, which is fine with yesteryear, and would love to do some repeating. Soon.

The Grizzlies will be favored to win their fourth straight Southern Sky Conference boys district title and second straight girls championship when they host the league's final get-together Saturday at the Southern Oregon University pool.

The meet will culminate what has already been a spectacular four-year SSC run by the Grizzlies, who will compete in a hybrid league next season. Preliminaries begin at 9 a.m. and finals at 2 p.m.

"I told them, 'It's the last year of the Southern Sky Conference,'" Ashland coach Steve Mitzel said, "'so let's go out in style,'"

A quick glance at the league's top marks reveals that Mitzel's request is well within reason. Ashland swimmers boast the fastest times in 13 of 22 events, including all six relays, a huge advantage because each relay is worth a whopping 32 points toward the team title.

The winner of each event earns a trip to the Class 5A state meet, Feb. 19-20 at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham. Mitzel's hope is that 10 to 12 Grizzlies qualify for state. Even that may be a conservative estimate.

"We've got four swimmers in just about every event," Mitzel said. "That doesn't happen very often in this conference."

On the girls side, junior Kirsten Ericksen and senior Kaylee Tracy represent the cream of Ashland's crop.

Ericksen, who's in her first year at AHS after moving here from Texas, has the top time in both the 200-yard individual medley (2 minutes, 22.18 seconds) and the 100 breaststroke (1:11.66). Even slowed down by knee and shoulder injuries, Ericksen may be in a league of her own. She's already broken the school record in the butterfly multiple times ­— she has decided not to compete in that event at districts — and is poised to set school records in both the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke Saturday. Ericksen's season best in the 100 breaststroke would rank third in the boys race.

"To me, it's a race against the clock," Ericksen said as she looked up at the list of Ashland records hanging on the wall of the SOU pool. "It's really awesome that my name's up there, but it will be taken down eventually and I know that. And if it sets somebody else's goal higher, then I'm happy with that."

Tracy's name may also soon become a fixture on the wall of fame. She enters districts with the best time in both the 50 freestyle (26.07) and the 100 freestyle (57.85) and, like Ericksen, will also swim for Ashland's 200 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay.

Tracy will have to overcome a nagging shoulder injury of her own in order to meet her goal and break the district record in the 50 free, but she likes her chances.

"Even through that, I feel strong and ready and I think the team's feeling ready for it, too," she said.

In a unique twist, a freshman may end up having the greatest impact for the Ashland boys. Gus Simms, who's ranked No. 1 in both the 100 butterfly (57.63) and the 500 freestyle, also could set district records in those events.

Seniors Lucas Opgenorth and Jake Gavin should also give the Grizzlies a major boost. Opgenorth enters the meet with the top time in the 200 freestyle (1:55.31) and ranks third in what figures to be a tight three-way battle for the 100 freestyle championship — the top three swimmers in the 100 free are separated by less than half a second.

"If I swim really well I do have a chance (in the 100 free)," said Opgenorth, who played a key role on Ashland's three previous SSC championship teams. "I just want to go and have the best time that I can. If I win, awesome, and if I don't, whatever. They're all good swimmers."

Gavin is seeded second by a fraction of a second in the 100 breaststroke (1:09.38) — Charles Warrington of Klamath Union ranks first (1:09.10) — and will also swim in multiple relay races.

Ashland may have rolled through the rest of the league during the rest of the season, but Mitzel was quick to point out that that doesn't necessarily guarantee success at districts. Crater, the most serious threat to a Grizz sweep, could put pressure on Ashland with a few early surprises, and the injuries and various illnesses that have plagued the Grizzlies lately could play a larger role than expected.

That's why Mitzel believes it's important for his team to start strong with a win in the first final of the day, the 200 medley relay.

"I always like to win that one because it kind of sets the tone for the whole thing," Mitzel said. "(In previous years) that was the win right out of the get-go that got us going, and once you get that lead and you get some momentum and you get a couple individual events under your belt, it tends to kind of just roll your way."

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