PALM HARBOR — For those suffering from fatigue regarding Palm Harbor University’s boys swim team, there is some unfortunate news.
The Hurricanes are state title contenders — again.
After a second-place finish at last year’s Class 4A state meet, PHU is back with essentially the lineup it fielded a year ago and appears more than capable of earning a crack at the program’s third team title in six seasons, a feat no program in the area has accomplished.
The team is flush with more than 50 swimmers, including four who were state place-winners last year: Manuel Barragan, Garrett Hoce, Tristan Sanders and Taylor Uselis. Those numbers should be enough to offset the graduation of Ryan McRae, the Tampa Bay Times’ 2012 all-Pinellas County swimmer of the year. That depth also makes the Hurricanes the overwhelming favorite to win their 11th straight conference title and gives them the inside track for their seventh straight district and ninth straight region titles.
“We have a really strong group of swimmers returning, and we have the potential to be right there with a chance to win again,” PHU coach Lisa Bitting said.
Perhaps the most important returning swimmer is Sanders, a senior who was a state champion in the 100 backstroke and took fourth in the 50 freestyle last year. He also was on the 200 and 400 free relay teams that finished fourth and second, respectively.
Sanders continued to swim well this summer, breaking several meet records in the free and back events. His best times in the 100 back (56.83) and 200 back (2:03.04) were fast enough to make Olympic and World trial cuts.
Those performances also made him a hot recruiting commodity. Sanders said he has received interest from more than 12 colleges and plans to visit Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia.
“Most of the guys on the team were juniors last year, and we’re all ready to take over that leadership role,” Sanders said. “Ryan was extremely important to our team last year, but everyone else has gotten so much faster, and we think that can help fill in the gap.”
Barragan should finish high in his individual events after placing third at the 200 individual medley and eighth in the 100 fly at state last year.
Uselis, state runnerup in the 500 free, has the distance events covered, and Hoce is a versatile swimmer with a fourth-place finish in the 200 IM.
More important, that foursome is back to make up the bulk of the relay teams, which are crucial to winning team titles.
Much like their previous state title runs, the Hurricanes are in one of the toughest districts and regions in the state. And PHU has to adjust to new surroundings with the state meet being held in Vero Beach for the first time.
The Hurricanes will have their first big test in October at the Florida Swimming Pool Association meet, which brings together the top swimmers in all classifications.
“Winning a state team title is a major goal for all of us,” Sanders said. “I feel like I have a pretty good shot to win both of my individual events, but I would trade that for a team title.”
More intriguing swimmers/teams for 2013
Bigger pool needed: Jesuit coach Bill Shaffer reports 27 kids out for his team, most of them long on promise but short on experience. Among the veterans: junior Austin Sellers, who earned medals in the 100 breast and 200 medley relay at last fall’s 2A meet.
Nazareno Boscaino, East Lake: The area’s premier distance swimmer won a state title in the 500 free as a freshman last year and is a big reason the Eagles should be in the top three at the district and state meets.
Calvin Bryant, Osceola: Boscaino and PHU’s Taylor Uselis grab most of the headlines in the 500 free, but Bryant is not far behind. The senior finished fifth at state in the event last year and should improve in a manageable classification (2A).
Dive for five? Four-time defending region champ Berkeley Prep features three divers — Jesse Potts, Hugo Rapp and Anthony Rauft-Lomano — who earned top-20 finishes at last season’s Class A meet. They represent part of what could be the area’s deepest lineup.
Max Jenkins, Plant: A 3A diving medalist as a freshman last season, Jenkins leads what should be a balanced Panthers lineup. Versatile senior Kyle Kimura is among those also worth watching.
Morgan Kiloh, Springstead: The senior anchored a 200 freestyle relay team that was among the best in the North Suncoast. He also earned top-four finishes at districts in the 100 free and 200 free.
Land O’Lakes: The North Suncoast’s top program has won district championships eight of the past nine years to go with 10 consecutive Sunshine Athletic Conference titles. If the Gators repeat, they’ll do so without coach Barbara Hayes, who stepped down after the season and has been replaced with Brian Vaile.
Mitchell: The Mustangs graduated Devin McCaffrey, an LSU signee who’s among the most decorated swimmers in North Suncoast history. They’ll look to replace him with Kevin Smith, who qualified for state in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke as a freshman. “He has a natural gift,” Mustangs girls swimming coach Kelly Erickson said.
Search for speed: Now that Robinson 50-yard freestyle extraordinaire John Nolte has graduated, the search commences for Hillsborough County’s top sprinter. Berkeley Prep junior Keating Mosher, Robinson senior Ross Brown and Strawberry Crest junior Cole Wisecarver — all state qualifiers last season — are among the candidates.
Shorecrest: With the exception of diver Jack Stein, who graduated, the Chargers return nearly every significant contributor from last year’s team, including John Farese, Joshua Chen, Alex Grant and Mark Marshburn. Unfortunately, Shorecrest is still in the same classification (A) with mega power Jacksonville Bolles.
Rasmus Skjaerpe, Tampa Prep: Affectionately known as “Moose,” Skjaerpe returns for his senior year as the reigning Class A state champ in the 200 free. He’ll be an elder statesman on a Terrapins squad teeming with promising young talent.
Sept. 6-7: Total Team Challenge at North Shore
Sept. 7: City Relays at Bobby Hicks
Sept. 14: Christian school meet in Fort Lauderdale
Sept. 21: PCAC meet at Long Center
Sept. 28: FSPA meet
Oct. 4-5: Bay Conference/Tampa Bay Classic at North Shore
Oct. 11-12: City Meet at North Shore
Oct. 21-26: Class A/2A districts
Oct. 28-Nov. 2: Class 3A/4A districts
Oct. 28-Nov. 2: Class A/2A regionals
Nov. 4-9: Class 3A/4A regionals
Nov. 8-9: Class A/2A state meet
Nov. 15-16: Class 3A/4A state meet
Compiled by staff writers Matt Baker, Joey Knight and Bob Putnam.
Photo: Tristan Sanders