Hall County Championships
When: 6 tonight
Where: Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, Gainesville
Teams: North Hall, Gainesville, Flowery Branch, West Hall, Riverside Military, Lakeview Academy, Chestatee
The Hall County Championships are getting very close to actually being a county-wide swim meet.
With the additions of Lakeview Academy and West Hall to this year’s meet, starting at 6 tonight at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center in Gainesville, seven of the county’s nine schools are now involved in the fast-growing sport.
North Hall coach Debby Duncan, a big advocate of Hall County swimming expansion, is excited to see the continued growth of the meet.
“It’s going to be a good championship,” she said. “It’s West Hall, Lakeview’s first year. We’re excited about it, and they’ve got some strong swimmers that should do well also.
“It’s getting to the point in Hall County where (swimming) is getting considered a sport, and it’s getting competitive because the swimmers are considering it a sport, not just something to play around with.”
The North Hall coach also noted that Hall County Parks and Recreation starting a summer swim league has helped spur interest in competitive swimming as well, as it gives county swimmers more options to qualify for state during the summer season.
Duncan, who started at North Hall three years ago, added that she has heard that East Hall is looking at the possibility of starting up a swim team in the future as well.
The more the merrier as far as Duncan and other local swim coaches are concerned. She has extended her hand to help both first-year programs this season.
“All of the schools around Hall County and schools in the surrounding counties have been so supportive,” said new West Hall coach Jenny Bonnilla, who decided to start a program last summer. “Every school has extended help, especially North Hall.”
Bonnilla has 17 kids in her program’s inaugural season. At least one, sophomore Sean Shepherd, has a good shot at becoming the school’s first state qualifier if he can shave a second off his 100-meter butterfly time either today or Saturday.
Even for the brand new swim programs, the county meet is still a chance to swim and claim bragging rights against the best competition in the county.
Duncan is looking for her five top boys swimmers — Paul Powers, Ty Powers, Bradley Brown, Stone Daniels and David Schofield — to lead the way for a Trojans team looking for a title. All five are also in offseason swim clubs to maintain their abilities, something Duncan said has also been key to the sport’s rising popularity in the area.
“These kids, they’re just phenomenal and they’re setting the bar,” she said. “All but two have just recently gone year-round, and this is the trend that’s begun.”
The trend can only make the county meet more competitive.
Flowery Branch, the team with the largest and one of the most talented programs in the county, is looking like one of the favorites once again.
“Our (defending Hall County champion girls) team is pretty strong from top to bottom,” Falcons coach Valerie Lancaster said. “And we’re able to compete in all strokes — I’ve been able to put eight girls in every event and compete.
“I think we’ll have a lot of Hall County champions for the girls.”
The Flowery Branch girls have won the last four championships. On the boys side, defending champ Riverside Military has won three of the last four county titles, with the Falcons coming in a close second last season.
Lancaster sees a close race for the boys title again this year, possibly coming down to the final event, the 400-freestyle relay, just like last season.
“It’s going to be cutthroat,” Lancaster said. “With the boys it’s going to be very tight — it’s going to come down to who betters themselves from prelim times.
“I think its really going to be a fight between Chestatee, Riverside, Flowery Branch and North Hall, possibly coming down to the 400 free.”
The Falcons coach has a number of swimmers still looking to qualify for state in an event as well, and will have their final two chances today at the county championships and Saturday at the second annual Falcon Invitational at Frances Meadows. The meet includes 23 teams and over 550 swimmers, and is designed to mimic the state meet with preliminary and final rounds.
Lancaster is looking for the boys to grab a qualifying time in the medley relay, and the girls in both the medley and 400 freestyle relay.
Still, despite the competitive nature of the race, Lancaster is glad to see even more competition this season.
“It’s really exciting because we’re looking for every Hall County team to participate,” she said. “If we can get every school in this area a program, then swimming has a better shot of becoming a varsity sport someday.”
Hall County swimming may not yet be at the level of some other counties in North Georgia, but it’s moving in the right direction.
Duncan, who spent a lot of time in Gwinnett County before making the move to North Hall, likes what she sees.
“I’m really tickled the way swimming is developing here,” she said. “Gwinnett’s still so different than Hall County, but Hall County’s really catching up.”
The evidence is clear — the sport is even closer to being county-wide, and growing.