Carrson Hirte returns to the Warriors for his senior season in swimming. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School boys and girls swim teams will open the season Thursday and with 31 students participating and a new head coach, there’s a buzz at Clemens Community Pool. The girls now have 20 in the pool, compared to 14 last season, and the boys’ roster has grown from seven to 11.

Seniors Carrson Hirte, Kellen Houchin and Micah Matthews anchor the boys roster — those three all competing at state last year and earning a medal as part of the 200-yard medley relay. Hirte, an athlete capable of swimming several events, has seen a lot of success in the pool since his freshman campaign.

PHS senior Kellen Houchin is looking strong in the breaststroke and butterfly. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“He’s been swimming year round since last season and just seeing him this past two weeks of practice, I can see the improvement in his stroke,” first-year head coach Iliana Kaiser said. “I’m excited to see how he does this year. I think he wants to focus more on freestyle and backstroke.”

Hirte went to state last season individually in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and with the relay.

“He’s a hard worker … he’s probably the fastest kid by at least a body length on most sets,” Kaiser said, a situation that requires a degree of individualization to get the most from him in workouts. “I’ve been trying to give him his set and then say, ‘oh, when you’re done, do this, go do something else’ and he’ll work on his underwaters or work on this, work on that. He just wants to make sure he stays busy.”

Houchin came on strong as a junior by winning the 100 breaststroke at the district meet and qualifying for state.

“He’s another one to keep an eye on — his breaststroke, his butterfly,” Kaiser said. “He just makes it look so easy … some kids have that.”

Matthews enters the season recovering from a fall sports injury and Kaiser said he’ll ease into competition. He competed individually last season at districts in the breaststroke and medley.

Junior Henry Katsikis is another returning swimmer with plenty of promise.

“Freestyle, breaststroke is, I think, what he wants to work on again this year,” Kaiser said. “He started to look strong last year — and it had been a while since he swam and so he had to start very low and work his way up. Now, he just has to work a little bit more before he gets to where he was last year.”

Junior Marshall Morrison along with two sophomores and five freshmen round out the roster.

The girls, meanwhile, enter the season with a senior-heavy roster of seven athletes, including year-round swimmer Allison Neelands, and good numbers overall.

Neelands is a sprint swimmer who competed in the 50 and 200 at districts last season (sixth and seventh, respectively) but may be leaning more toward the 100 and 200 this season, Kaiser said.

Sophomore Kyah Weeber had a top-six finish at districts last season in the 200 IM but appears to be interested in focusing on different events.

“She wants to add the 200 free and 500 free,” Kaiser said. “Adding the 500 really caught me off guard. Distance? Because she swam sprints last year.”

Senior Katherine Holden also had a top-six finish at districts with her performance in the 100 butterfly.

“Katherine is wanting to do the 100 backstroke, 100 freestyle and alternating the fly with the free,” Kaiser said.

Senior distance swimmer Emma Holden also returns to the roster and will score points. Other top returnees include senior Grace Bennett, who appears to be focused on the breaststroke and freestyle, and junior Madison Juhl, who will swim freestyle and may add another stroke.

Allison Neelands is among seven seniors on the 19-athlete girls roster. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Kaiser returns to Philomath High’s swim program for a second year after working as an assistant last season under Daniel Mikula. She becomes the fourth swim coach over the past five seasons for the Warriors.

Philomath represents Kaiser’s first head coaching job at the high school level. She joined the Warriors after Mikula had spotted her working out at the pool as she stayed in shape for club swimming.

“I think it was just two weeks of being here and he’s like, ‘hey, do you want a job?’ and I said ‘of course,’” she said.

Kaiser’s competitive past includes a few years of youth swimming, three years in high school and three years of club swimming in college.

“So, a lot of different mentors and training styles,” she said. “My college one — his only focus was on speed, my high school one was very well rounded and my (youth) club one was teaching the basics.”

Kaiser coached a youth team herself when she was age 18. She’s enjoying the interaction with the students.

“Every day, they catch me off guard with some random comment or whatever,” she laughed. “Seeing them build a love for something, even if it’s not just my sport that I’ve been with for half my life … it’s nice to see them get excited to graduate. We have 11 seniors this year and they’re all buzzing.”

Kaiser said she wants the swimmers to at least have the basics on all strokes, especially with so many on the roster.

“We can have a lot of different combinations of kids participating,” she said. “It’s not always the same person doing the backstroke every time — I want to make sure everybody has a chance to try it.”

However, the coach will develop athletes in a particular event, if needed.

“I do encourage them to pick their own events but if I see that they are really good at the breaststroke in practice, then I want to put them in the 100 breaststroke even if they haven’t been signing up for it,” she said. “Sometimes they need a confidence boost.”

Assisting Kaiser with coaching responsibilities is Hannah Lee.

After Thursday’s season-opening home dual against Sisters, the team will turn around on Friday and head to North Eugene for a tri-meet that also includes Junction City. A Jan. 24 home appearance against Stayton and Kennedy will be the team’s senior recognition meet.

The district meet will be Feb. 10-11 at Albany with state to follow on Feb. 17-18 at the Tualatin Hills Aquatic Center in Beaverton.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.