FEDERAL WAY — A third straight state championship was at stake for the Bainbridge Spartans boys swimming team and it all came down to the final race of the meet — the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Needing a win to stave off an upset by Mercer Island, the Spartans’ relay came through under pressure to beat the Islanders and win the event, securing a Bainbridge three-peat at the 3A boys swimming and diving championship on Saturday.
“It was amazing and a great thing to be a part of,” said Bainbridge coach Kaycee Taylor, who was interrupted when one of his swimmers asked for his phone. Moments later he realized his team wanted to throw him in the pool but officials nixed the idea. The full-scale celebration would have to wait until later.
For seniors like Makai Ingalls, who is not pursuing swimming after high school, one final championship run was everything to him.
“This was my last hurrah and it was just a great season,” he said. “We have so many great people on our team and it’s a great way to close out my swimming career.”
Bainbridge held a slight lead over Mercer Island, 374 to 366, in the team standings heading into the 400 relay. With 40 points given to the winner, it was all or nothing.
The relay team of Ingalls, Andrew Witty, Garrett Waite and Jude Wenker blasted its previous state record time set last year by almost two seconds winning in 3 minutes, 3.95 seconds.
“That 3:03 surprised me,” Taylor said. “I thought 3:05, maybe? You get to that point where the team feels that it’s right there. It’s right there for them to take and they did.”
Taylor, who was named the Washington Interscholastic Coaches Association Coach of the Year for the second time, said winning three straight meant a lot to him.
“They’re such amazing athletes and they’re so committed to the program and committed to each other. That says a lot,” he said. “We’re a little community too, so I’m hopeful that it brings (them) excitement as it does for us as a coaching staff and team. It just shows that all the work — even prior to high school that these kids have been doing — pays off now.
“We’ve had success in the past but to have a three-peat like this in such a final fashion with the race, even though it was close at the end, it just feels awesome.”
Kevin Houseman, a Northwestern signee, said three wins in a row shows the program is doing something right.
“Honestly, I feel like this third year shows how this team has not only changed but stayed so motivated,” he said. “We’ve gathered new faces and we’ve lost some. We still come out on top. I owe it all to my teammates.”
Bainbridge started the meet with a win in the 200 medley relay as Waite, Houseman, Witty and Aidan Wagner clocked a time of 1:32.72, an All-American Consideration time. Mercer was second in 1:33.38.
Jude Wenker then followed with a win an AAC time of 1:39.93 in the 200 freestyle. Bremerton Olympic champion Nathan Adrian holds the state record of 1:37.17. Central Kitsap’s RJ Thomasberg finished 10th overall.
Waite won the 200 individual medley in 1:50.68, an AAC time, while teammate Witty was fourth and Tyler Stewart won a fast B final and give the Spartans much-needed points.
Gig Harbor’s Billy Oates broke through with a win in the 50 freestyle in an AAC time of 20.88 seconds as Ingalls placed third and Wagner was sixth.
Kiernan Liberman then held the spotlight in the one-meter diving event as he and Shorewood’s Isaac Poole battled for the title. Liberman, who won the event last season, won with a score of 443 points to 410.45 for Poole. Bainbridge’s Brian Taylor finished third and teammate Henry Sauermann was 16th giving the Spartans a total of 37 points in the one event.
“Not a lot of other teams can do that,” Taylor noted of the points total they received in diving alone.
Liberman said defending his title was harder than winning his first.
“I definitely felt like there was a target on my back this year,” he said. “I worked really hard this season and it’s nice to get the result that I wanted.”
Those points would were needed as Mercer’s James Richardson, who was later named the WISCA Swimmer of the Meet, lowered the meet record to 48.55 seconds to win the 100 butterfly. GH’s Oates was second and Bainbridge’s Ingalls third. Central Kitsap junior James Sanchez finished eighth.
In the 100 freestyle, Bainbridge’s Wenker and Waite picked up much needed points when they finished first and second as Mercer had three swimmers in the event. Wenker clocked an AAC time of 45.60 and Waite finished in 46.16. He jokingly gave team bragging rights to Wenker for beating him for the title.
“Of course we’ve been pushing each other in practice all the time and this race we were looking at state, we were like ‘You know what? We’re just going to have fun with this one,’” Waite said. “Yes, it was a grudge match.”
So what was Wenker’s reaction when Waite told him he was going to swim the 100 free?
“I was scared,” he laughed.
Always looking at ways to improve, Wenker said he wasn’t happy with his turns but “I was pleased with the time. I wanted to go a couple tenths faster and get a best time but it was pretty good for right now. And the points really matter right now.”
Wenker showed his endurance later in the meet as the anchor leg of the 400 relay when he had a split time of 44.9 (beating his own 100 free time).
Mercer Island then went 1-2 in the 500 freestyle, upsetting top seed Sam Chapman of Bainbridge, as Jacob Headrick won in 4:36.56 and Alex Edwards followed. Chapman touched in 4:38.31 for third place as Mercer took over the lead in the team standings.
“That was where the big swing happened but we just knew, we had a game plan,” Taylor said. “The back half of the meet’s big for us.”
Bainbridge’s 200 freestyle relay of Oskar Bannister, a water polo player who joined the swim team for fun this season, Wagner, Ingalls and Wenker on the anchor raced to an Automatic All-American time of 1:24.91. Mercer was second in 1:25.72 as the two teams continued to battle it out event by event.
Richardson of Mercer snagged the 100 backstroke championship in a state meet record an AAA time of 48.43. Bainbridge’s Witty finished third in 50.79 and Ian Lipton finished eighth. CK’s Sanchez placed 10th.
It was Bainbridge’s performance in the 100 breaststroke that catapulted the Spartans forward and helped erase the Islanders lead the Spartans gained 54 points as Houseman won, Max Eyrich finished a surprising third and Carter Hall was eighth. Wagner also placed 10th overall in the B final as Mercer had just one swimmer in the event.
Houseman only swam in the medley relay and the breaststroke due to the cancelation of the district swimming meet so he was well rested between the two events.
“I was kind of banking on that to qualify for my second event,” he said. “Not being able to swim a second individual put a damper on my mood going into this because I knew I wouldn’t be able to contribute as much as a I have in the past. At the same time I knew I was here for a purpose of going hard on the medley relay and the 100 breast and getting first, and helping the team to first.”
Houseman’s dominating swim — he had a first 50-split of 24.94 that was nearly two seconds faster than the rest of the field and his second 50 came in at 28.49 — electrified the crowd and the Bainbridge fan base as he touched the wall in an AAA and state meet record of 53.43.
For a brief moment the large scoreboard at the aquatic center flashed a 48.9, but was adjusted. Still, Houseman did wonder if that was possible and was bewildered at first.
“The first thing that caught my eye, 53.4, OK, I got the record, I’m happy,” he said. “Next, teammates. I saw Max two places below me and I was like Whoa! Thank goodness. We needed that. And then Carter, he should be happy. He’s a senior. He doesn’t swim, he doesn’t do water sports, he’s a runner. My goodness.
“The other thing that I saw that kind of spooked me was the 48.9,” Houseman continued. “It just showed up on the board. It was kind of worrisome but I figured I didn’t see anybody ahead of me so it was probably a touch and it would have been an American record set by a high schooler.”
Houseman had also been gunning for Pat Fowler’s 1998 record of 53.66.
“That was goal all season long, 53 (seconds) or better,” said Taylor, “and to have that today, to get that crowning thing for him as a senior going off to swim next year at college, it’s pretty amazing.”
That set the stage for the dramatic final relay. Just over three minutes later, the Spartans were champions again.
It’s the second time the school has won three consecutive swimming championships. The Spartan girls did it first, winning from 1994-1996 as a AA/A school under former head coach Greg Colby. Bainbridge’s three wins are still historic. The boys team became the first Kitsap school to win three straight state championships in a male sport.
Other teams in other sports have come close — Bainbridge girls basketball won back-to-back titles in 1986-87 and 1987-88, South Kitsap baseball went to the state final three years in a row and won once, 2014-15, as did Bainbridge’s softball team in 2008-09 after making the title game three consecutive seasons.