PALM HARBOR — There are 13 weeks in the regular season, but is there any reason the engravers should not get started on the Pinellas County Athletic Conference trophy now? Does anyone envision a scenario in which Palm Harbor University’s boys do not breeze to their ninth straight title?
“It’s going to be nearly impossible for them to lose,” Countryside coach Ian O’Neil said. “There’s just too much depth.”
Sure, there may be a bump or two along the way and some closer meets once the Hurricanes venture outside of Pinellas. But make no mistake: PHU is the county’s best.
The Hurricanes, though, have their eyes trained on a bigger prize. They are poised to win their second state team title in the past four years, a feat that would rank them as one of the most dominant boys programs ever in the Tampa Bay area.
Palm Harbor University won its first state title in 2008, marking the first time a bay area boys program has won since Clearwater in 1978.
If the Hurricanes win again, they would become just the second program in the bay area to win multiple titles, joining St. Petersburg, which won six from 1924-45.
And PHU has the team to do it. Every swimmer returns from last year’s team that finished second in 3A, losing by a point because it did not have a state qualifying 400 free relay team in the final event.
“On paper, this is the best team that I’ve ever had,” coach Lisa Bitting said.
Though there are no returning state champions, Ryan McRae (100 free), David Morgan (100 breast, 200 IM) and Jason Williams (50, 100 free) placed fifth or higher in their signature events last season. All three will team with Zach Perrotti in the 200 medley and 200 free relays that finished in the top four a year ago.
And the Hurricanes’ path became even clearer this summer when Countryside’s Matt Ellis, who won state titles in the 50 free and 100 fly, transferred back to Texas.
In a way, PHU’s superior depth and cold-blooded efficiency in the water has worked against it. No county team is strong enough to challenge the ’Canes. Still, Bitting is not ready to anoint her team state champions just yet.
“There are a lot of things that can happen,” Bitting said. “Disqualifications can be costly. We still have a whole season to swim. We’ll start thinking about that more as we get closer to that point.”
Boys to watch
Nick Alexiou, Sr., Clearwater: Class 3A state runnerup in the 200 free has a shot to win 500 free as well thanks to graduation of top state swimmers.
Ryan McRae, Jr., Palm Harbor University: 3A state runnerup in 100 free is in position to win the event.
David Morgan, Sr., PHU: Took third at 3A state meet in 100 breast and fifth in 200 IM last season.
Jack Stein, Jr., Shorecrest: Could win elusive state title in diving after placing second in Class A.
Zac Metka, Jr., Seminole: Leader of the Warhawks who was seventh in 200 IM at state.
Georgi Krastev, Jr., Northeast: One of three county swimmers who finished in the top 10 in the 100 back at 3A meet.
Taylor Uselis, So., PHU: One of the county’s top distance swimmers was seventh in 500 free.
Jeffrey Burns, Jr., East Lake: County’s second-best diver was 10th in 3A.
Richard Willsey, Sr., Countryside: Strong sprinter who was 3A state qualifier in 100 and 50 free.
Gary Lush, Sr., Countryside: Swam a leg on 3A state qualifying 200 free relay and second-place 400 free relay.
Girls to watch
Jessica Piper, Sr., St. Petersburg: Times’ 2010 swimmer of the year won the Class 3A title in the 100 back, finished second in 200 individual medley.
Kelsey Buckley, Sr., Tarpon Springs: Defending 2A champ in the 200 IM also is a threat to win 100 free after finishing second.
Hannah Roper, Jr., Seminole: Her meteoric rise last year culminated with the 3A title in the 100 breast.
Hannah Stein, Sr., Shorecrest: Poised to win her first Class A title in diving after taking fourth.
Lauren Hall, Jr., Countryside: Could place in multiple events after qualifying for state in 100 free and 100 breast.
Kelly Verheyleweghen, Jr., Tarpon Springs: County’s top returning swimmer in 100 fly also will be counted on in relays.
Hope Andrews, Sr., Shorecrest: State qualifier in 200 free missed meet last year because she was sick.
Sarah Freeman, So., PHU: Leader of a young group of swimmers is among 3A’s top eight returners in 50 free.
Autumn Finke, Jr., Countryside: County’s top distance swimmer just missed qualifying for state in 500 free.
Marissa Marckese, St. Petersburg: 3A state qualifier in 50 free and 100 back.
Class 3A-5: Alonso, Chamberlain, Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Gaither, Northeast, Palm Harbor University, Pinellas Park, Plant, Seminole, Wiregrass Ranch.
Class 2A-8: Academy of the Holy Names (girls only), Blake, Gibbs, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Jesuit (boys only), King, Largo, Leto, Robinson, Sickles, Spoto, Strawberry Crest.
Class 2A-9: Boca Ciega, Bradenton Bayshore, Bradenton Southeast, Dixie Hollins, Dunedin, Lakewood, Lakewood Ranch, Lemon Bay, Lennard, Osceola, Tarpon Springs.
Class A-7: Academy of the Lakes, Bayshore Christian (boys only), Berkeley Prep, Calvary Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic, Fivay, Hudson, Middleton, Ridgewood, Seffner Christian (girls only), Tampa Catholic, Tampa Prep.
Class A-8: Admiral Farragut, Anclote, Bradenton Christian (boys only), Bradenton St. Stephen’s, Canterbury, Indian Rocks Christian, Keswick Christian, Northside Christian, Sarasota Booker, Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, Sarasota Christian, Sarasota Out-of-Door, Shorecrest, St. Petersburg Catholic.
Sept. 9-10, Total team relays at North Shore Pool
Sept. 23-24, PCAC meet
Sept. 30-Oct. 1, Bay Conference/Tampa Bay Classic at North Shore Pool
Oct. 8, FSPA Invitational at Orlando YMCA
Oct. 14-15, St. Petersburg City Championships at North Shore
Oct. 24-29, district meets
Nov. 3-5, region meets
Nov. 10-12, state meets in Orlando.