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State swim champs are heroes at Palm Harbor school

“We won by one point!” says Palm Harbor University swim coach Lisa Bitting after her boys team took the state title in the finals in Orlando on Thursday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

“We won by one point!” says Palm Harbor University swim coach Lisa Bitting after her boys team took the state title in the finals in Orlando on Thursday.

PALM HARBOR

Among the beauties of being a state champ is that the celebration doesn't end with the final score.

The boys on the Palm Harbor University swim team are learning that lesson this week, as they are being treated as stars around the school after their victory in Orlando.

They wore their gold medals and were the featured guests on the school's morning announcement show. And the past two days, they heard "congratulations" more times than they could remember.

"It's such a nice feeling to have people recognize us for our athletic achievements," Palm Harbor swimmer Chris Mertens said. "That usually doesn't happen around here."

The euphoria began when it was clear PHU would finish among the top two in the 400 free relay. The fans, nearly 200 strong, began to cheer in disbelief.

Many of them were already on their feet. Others soon rose to join them.

As anchor leg Tyler Reed touched the wall in second place, Hurricane coach Lisa Bitting stood near the edge of the Orlando YMCA pool, squeezing an assistant coach's arms. Bitting leaped. All her boy swimmers leaped, in that ungainly way that kids jump around in excitement.

By finishing as the runnerup in the relay, Palm Harbor University secured the Class 3A title, beating Miami Palmetto 187-186.

It was the first Pinellas County team title in swimming since Seminole High's girls won in 1985.

"We were all in awe after we won," Hurricane swimmer Wes Stearns said. "It was so close and so exciting to have to come down to the end."

Students at Palm Harbor put things academic ahead of things athletic. The school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate. And grade point averages and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are the most talked about stats.

For example, Mertens, a senior, has a 4.78 GPA in the medical magnet program and scored 1,590 out of a possible 1,600 on the SAT.

"Those numbers are what I'm known more for among the students," Mertens said. "It meant a lot to show everyone we're all pretty good athletes, too."

The Hurricanes are not champions because they hung onto the coattails of some superstar swimmer who could win every event, but because they have a collection of hardworking swimmers who check their ego at the door and do not mind sharing the load.

"We're all above-average swimmers who came together and worked well," Mertens said. "We all wanted to win for ourselves and for our coach."

Bitting was a captain on the Seminole High girls team that won in 1985. That title was won at the same pool, and was not decided until the final event.

"It's been such a rush for the past few days," Bitting said. "I've had a lot of calls and e-mails after we won. It's amazing to know how many people were following what we were doing."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com or ( 727) 445-4169.

State swim champs are heroes at Palm Harbor school 11/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 9:52pm]
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