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County crowds state pool

Lining up transportation for a school's state-meet contingent used to mean sweet-talking a parent into lending a station wagon, or maybe hitting up the school administration for a couple of vans.

Not this year.

"We're renting a bus," Palm Harbor University coach Lisa Bitting said.

"We're taking a record number of kids," East Lake coach Sybil Lotz said.

Like last year's state meet in Orlando, the county boasts several boys and girls with legitimate title hopes.

But for every Jordan Raynovich and Stephanie Margalis, there are also dozens of younger swimmers traveling to the state meet for the first time.

In all, some 125 individuals are competing in swimming and diving events, and several other athletes will pitch in on relay teams starting today when the state meet returns to Fort Lauderdale's International Swimming Hall of Fame for the first time since 1996.

"I didn't imagine we'd be taking so many. We have a total of 34 swims to watch," said Lotz, whose Class 2A, District 5 boys and girls champions advanced 21 swimmers. "They feel like they are on their way to the Olympics."

East Lake might not duplicate its fourth-place boys finish and eighth-place girls finish in last year's Class 2A team standings. Big names such as state champion Jessica Schrock have graduated, but its young contingent (only one senior) will gain valuable experience from competing against the state's best.

Many area swimmers can thank the Florida High School Activities Association's redistricting. Last season, 14 Pinellas public schools were in one district, and with just the top three finishers in each event guaranteed state berths, many good swimmers were left out.

This season, two Class 2A districts included local teams, with Hillsborough and Pasco county schools rounding out the competition. Many of those teams had neither the depth nor speed , and consequently more Pinellas swimmers claimed top spots and invitations to Fort Lauderdale.

For the better teams, this year's districts were nothing to sweat over.

Two teams, Palm Harbor's girls in Class 3A, District 5 and Northeast's boys in Class 2A, District 7, qualified swimmers for state in every event.

"The last couple years, our relays were right on top. They coasted (at district) and saved it all for the state meet," Northeast coach Bill Burrows said. "I'm hoping that's the case for (the top individuals).

"I'm so used to fighting it out in districts. This is going to be a different situation."

Northeast's defending 200-yard individual medley state champion, Raynovich, swam an average (for him) 1 minute, 56.83 seconds in the district meet, but still secured the top seed among all qualifiers. He's a sure bet to swim faster Friday night, and will have to with a pair of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas seniors likely to join him in the final.

St. Thomas Aquinas has won four consecutive boys titles and seven consecutive girls titles, and the meet is in its home pool.

Clearwater's Margalis is out to defend her title in the 500 freestyle, and posted the fastest district time (4:56.57) of all Class 3A qualifiers. She's also the top qualifier in the 200 free (1:51.57).

Countryside's Ashley Messmore tied Ocala Forest's Caroline Robertson as the top Class 2A 100 breaststroke qualifier (1:07.06), and Dunedin's Lauren Bullock might be the surprise favorite.

Bullock, a senior, wasn't a factor in the 200 free at September's conference meet, finishing fifth. College visits wreaked havoc with her early-season practices and she didn't get into a training groove until last month.

Getting back into a routine made all the difference, and at districts, she bettered her conference time in the 200 free by 6 seconds (1:52.65). Now, a first state title is a solid possibility.

"Lately, I've been putting everything I have into practice," said Bullock, who is signing with the University of Louisville. "I knew it was going to be hard, but I think I'm ready for this week.

"When I get behind the blocks, it's mine."

THE SKINNY: In the swimming events, 40 participants will compete in preliminaries, with the top 16 advancing to the evening swim. The top eight will swim in the event finals. Divers will complete 11 dives. To see complete lists of state qualifiers, go to www.fhsaa.org/programs/sports/sw/

index.htm.

_ Compiled by John Schwarb.

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