Surreal. Shocking. Heartbreaking.
All are words that could be used to describe the George Washington boys team’s trip to the state meet a year ago, and all are also words that had rarely been used to describe anything in terms of GW swimming.
But a year ago, the Patriots boys team watched as Parkersburg South ended its five-year run of state championships by one single solitary point.
And so this year, as swimmers from around the state take to the pool on Thursday in Morgantown for two days with West Virginia supremacy on the line, nobody associated with the Patriots is making any bones about what the mission is this time around.
“I tell everybody, nobody will ever understand that feeling of looking into those boys’ eyes and watching them be crushed over one point, and they’re hungry this year,” GW coach Kaycee Wheeler said. “They’re coming back, they know what they bring to the table and they know nothing is guaranteed. It’s exciting.”
The boys enter the meet ranked No. 1 in the team power rankings at swimwv.com, and that lofty perch is in some part due to newcomer Cameron Penn, a sophomore who is ranked as the No. 1 overall swimmer in the state by the website.
Penn was homeschooled until this year but admits that GW’s loss at last year’s state meet directly influenced his decision to attend the school this year.
“Mainly repping my team and winning,” Penn said when asked what he was looking forward to most at the state meet. “GW lost by a point last year and that’s the main reason I came to public school. I’m up here trying to help them come back on that. That was a pretty big upset.”
Penn qualified for the 100-yard butterfly and the 100 backstroke and has the fastest seed time in the latter event entering the meet. He’ll also swim a leg on GW’s 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays.
He comes with an unusual way of doing things, usually diving into the pool with his chest glowing red after smacking himself several times to increase blood flow, pump himself up and for superstitious reasons as well.
“I started that about a year ago,” Penn explained. “Me and a friend were behind the blocks and we started beating our chests — I had a lifetime best [time], so it stuck.”
While Penn will have a couple more years of trying to rack up individual and team state championships, this is the last go-around for GW senior Patrick Reed, who will attempt to capture his first individual title in either the 200 individual medley or 100 breaststroke, an event in which he finished second a year ago at the state meet.
“It would mean a lot, that’s been the goal all four years,” Reed admitted. “[Recapturing a team title] has been a pretty strong driving force, but a lot of us are just trying to get up there and go fast for us, too.”
Other local boys swimmers to watch are Nitro’s Nick Fraley, a top contender in the 50 free, and Hurricane’s Michael Lyons, who is considered with Reed among the state’s best in the 200 IM.
The GW girls team is riding a streak of four straight state championships but will enter Thursday ranked third in the state behind Wheeling Park and Fairmont Senior.
But Wheeler said her girls are every bit as focused, confident and ready as the boys team.
“The good thing for the girls is I think we qualified eight girls in individual events and that’s depth and that’s what it takes at the state meet,” Wheeler said. “It’s awesome to get firsts, but it helps to have some of those pad points in between, and that was the lesson we learned last year with the boys. We were out there winning, but we weren’t getting extra points and that hurt us in the end. I think the girls are equally as ambitious and equally as excited, and I’m excited for them. It’ll be fun to watch.”
The Patriots will be led by Savannah Jackson, a contender in the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke, Alayna Thompson, a top contender in the 100 butterfly, and Karly O’Dell, who sits near the top of the list in the 200 and 500 freestyles.
Other local girls swimmers to watch are Charleston Catholic’s Sara Carr and St. Albans’ Regan Raines, who could battle for the state title in both the 50 and 100 freestyles, and Winfield’s Alyssa Rittinger, a top contender in the 200 and 500 freestyles.