TARPON SPRINGS — In her final strokes of the 200-yard individual medley, Tarpon Springs’ Kelsey Buckley roared back from fourth place into contention for a state title at last year’s Class 2A state meet.
By the end, she was in a mad dash with Sarasota Booker’s McKayla Lightbourn for first. After the finish, both swimmers spun around, tore off their goggles and looked to the video screen to find out their fates. In the moment it took to unscramble the numbers, the tension inside the Orlando YMCA rose.
Lightbourn was timed at 2:05.21. Buckley finished 2:05.65, a personal best and an All-America consideration time.
“Winning a state title was something I had in my mind last year,” Buckley said. “I knew I was close in that event (200 IM).”
Buckley also took third in the 100 free (51.86).
With postseason meets starting next week, Buckley is in contention to win again. The junior is the top state returner in her classification in the 200 IM and is third in the 100 free, behind Tallahassee Lincoln’s Alex Merritt and Clay’s Kaitly Dressel.
But Buckley is not satisfied with just being a top seed.
“I really want to win,” she said.
Buckley started on her goal not long after last season ended. She trains twice a day, working out at 5:30 a.m. and again after school.
"Kelsey is a tireless worker,” Tarpon coach Scott Hernon said. “She hardly ever misses a practice and is the type of girl you have to tell to go home from the pool.”
The work has helped improve her times. Her goal this year is to finish the 200 IM in 2:03.00 and the 100 free in 50 seconds.
“I think if I can do that I could have a shot at winning,” Buckley said.
Buckley is aiming for her third state appearance. She made it as a freshman two years ago and was a favorite for a top-three finish, but her hopes were capsized by waves of stress and self doubt.
She returned last year with her confidence inflated and chances buoyed by strong showings at districts and regionals.
Now, the only thing left to achieve is a gold medal — or two.
“At state you always hope for everything to fall into place,” Hernon said. “But I think there would have to be some crazy things to happen for Kelsey not to win a state title this year.”
Admission: $5 per session
Format: Meets determine region berths, with 24 per event (district winners plus next overall best times). In diving, the top four in each district advance (minimum score of 280).
Where: Greater Palm Harbor YMCA, Palm Harbor
When: Diving, 10 a.m. Oct. 29. Swimming, 9 a.m. Oct. 30.
Teams: Alonso, Chamberlain, Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Largo, Northeast, Palm Harbor University, Pinellas Park, Plant, Seminole
Outlook: This district is one of the toughest in the state, featuring most of the county’s top teams, as well as Hillsborough County power Plant. PHU’s boys have won nine straight district titles and its girls team has won three in a row. Both have tremendous depth, which will make them favorites to win again. Two individuals to watch are Clearwater’s Nick Alexiou and Countryside’s Matt Ellis, who could each win multiple events at state.
Where: Sarasota YMCA
When: Diving, noon Oct. 30. Swimming, 9 a.m. Oct. 30.
Teams: Bradenton Manatee, Gibbs Punta Gorda Charlotte, North Port, Port Charlotte, Sarasota, Sarasota Riverview, St. Petersburg, Venice.
Outlook: Last week, St. Petersburg’s boys won the team title at the St. Petersburg City Championship. And Jessica Piper helped the Green Devils girls at the same meet by winning two individual events. But St. Petersburg’s boys and girls will likely be battling for second and third considering Riverview has powerful boys and girls teams with state aspirations.
Where: North Shore Pool, St. Petersburg
When: Diving, 11:30 a.m. Oct. 29 at the Long Center. Swimming, 9 a.m. Oct. 30.
Teams: Boca Ciega, Bradenton Bayshore, Bradenton Braden River, Bradenton Lakewood Ranch, Bradenton Southeast, Dixie Hollins, Dunedin, Englewood Lemon Bay, Lakewood, Osceola, Tarpon Springs
Outlook: Osceola and Tarpon Springs are the strongest contenders for girls and boys team titles. The Spongers’ Kelsey Buckley will be favored in the 200 IM and 100 free and could win both events at state.
Where: Tampa Prep
When: Diving, 11 a.m. Wednesday. Swimming, 9 a.m. Oct. 28.
Teams: Bayshore Christian, Berkeley Prep, Calvary Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic, Steinbrenner, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, Seffner Christian, Strawberry Crest, Tampa Catholic, Tampa Prep
Outlook: Only two county teams are in this mostly Hillsborough district. Calvary and CCC do not have a lot of depth and will try to advance as many individuals as possible. Berkeley Prep’s boys, which went undefeated in the regular season and won the Tampa Bay Classic a second straight season, will be a heavy favorite.
Where: Southwest Rec Center, Largo
When: Diving, 1 p.m. Oct. 30. Swimming, 9 a.m. Oct. 30.
Teams: Admiral Farragut, Bradenton Christian, Bradenton St. Stephens, Canterbury, Indian Rocks Christian, Keswick Christian, Northside Christian, St. Petersburg Catholic, Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, Sarasota Christian, Sarasota Out-of-Door, Shorecrest
Outlook: Shorecrest’s girls, who won team titles at Bay Conference, the Tampa Bay Classic and the St. Petersburg City Championships a second straight season, will be favored to defend their district title. The Chargers boys should be near the top as well. Northside’s boys and girls teams will be contenders.