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  1. Sports

Pinellas County's powerhouse swim programs rebuilding

For nearly two decades, there has been at least one male or female swimmer from Pinellas County who has won an individual state title.

County high school teams have been triumphant, too. East Lake's girls (2014) and Palm Harbor University's boys (2011, 2013) have won team titles, ending a nearly 30-year drought not only for Pinellas but also for the Tampa Bay area.

But after a heavy graduating class of state champions that included East Lake's Sydney Pickrem (Texas A&M), Alexandra Aitchison (Duke) and Grant Sanders (Arizona), and Countryside's Cooper Hoffman (Florida State University), the county is left with no returning state champions. No emerging swimmer is a clear-cut favorite to win a title either.

"It's a little bit different this season," Countryside boys and girls coach Scott Herndon said. "There should be a good amount of parity. The county lost a pretty good amount of talent, but there are some really good swimmers who are back."

Palm Harbor University's girls have the best shot to win a team title. That would be a first for the program and coach Lisa Bitting, who is entering her 20th season at the school. The Hurricanes have high hopes after graduating just one swimmer from last year's team that won a region title. The school's top retuning swimmers are Madison Jones, Lauren McIntosh and Caroline Ward. And there are several strong underclassmen who are eligible after sitting out last season because of transfer rules.

"This is a strong team that can do well, but I'd say we're probably in the top-five range right now," Bitting said. "Class 4A is always tough so I don't want to say we're a state title contender yet without seeing how we swim early on in the season."

After winning the program's first state team title last season, East Lake's girls are in a major rebuilding phase. Their top five swimmers graduated — Aitchison, Pickrem, Natalie Clausen (Tulane), Annika Smith (Canisius) and Michelle Turek (Auburn).

The Eagles did benefit from moving down in classification from Class 4A to 3A. Their boys, led by Mitchell Irwin, can contend for titles at the conference and district level. East Lake's toughest competition at conference is expected to come from Countryside, the state runnerup in 4A last season.

The Cougars lost some firepower, especially with Hoffman graduating. But several standouts remain, including Robert Finke, Noah Lense and Joey Licht, all of whom will form a solid nucleus in the relays.

"I think we'll still be pretty strong locally and at the state level," Herndon said.

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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