By Kim Staudinger
Whoever said three-peats are difficult did not know of the Havre Blue Ponies.
Saturday in Missoula marked the third straight year both the Havre High girls and boys swim teams won the Class A-B state championship.
For the girls, a state title was somewhat expected, but the story was different for the boys. The talk in the swimming world all week was of the Hardin boys team. Someone, somewhere along the line left out the Ponies.
"Our kids were physically and mentally prepared for this meet," Havre head coach Chris O'Donnell said. "Hardin came out and made so many mistakes that really cost them and we took advantage of that. Our kids didn't make any mental mistakes. They came out and wanted to beat Hardin so bad. The kids won with class and that's what makes our kids so wonderful. They are just great kids."
Thinking a state title was theirs, the Bulldogs came out overly confident, O'Donnell said. And maybe they should have, since the Bulldogs had defeated the Ponies in every meet this season. But one key piece had been missing. Due to basketball, Havre swam without freshman Scott Robinson for most of the season. Other team members also had missed meets for other school-related activites, like junior Ryan Gilbreath for drama.
Pony junior Joey Howland said Hardin didn't give the Ponies' missing swimmers much credit, which gave Havre a little element of surprise.
"They (Hardin) haven't really seen our guys' team at full strenght this year," Howland said. "They didn't really factor (Robinson) into our equation at all. I think that worked to our advantage down there in Missoula."
Gilbreath, in his second year of swimming for the Ponies, said that while he and his teammates had expectations of beating Hardin, they still worried. And while Hardin's first relay team got disqualified early, Gilbreath said, it didn't have a huge impact.
"It made us a little more excited" he said. "But it didn't mean anything. We still had to go out and swim as hard as we could."
The boys finished with 40 points while Hardin trailed with 21. Havre's 200 medley relay team, composed of Gilbreath, Howland, Mario Pizzini and Andrew McLain, finished in 11th place with a time of 1:56.56. The boys 200 freestyle relay added an eighth-place finish with a time of 1:38.81. Members of that team were Chris Chandler, Gilbreath, Howland and Robinson. Those same four came away with a medal for taking sixth in the 400 freestyle relay. The relay time was 3:47.71.
O'Donnell said that on the bus trip home, members of the boys relay teams promised her some school records would fall next season. O'Donnell said it would be the first time in years a relay team would come close to a record and something she thinks is possible.
Individually on the boys' side, Howland placed 11th in the 50 freestyle with a time of 24.18. Robinson added two finishes, eighth in the 50 freestyle (23.26) and 12th in the 100 butterfly (1:01.10).
O'Donnell said that with three events left, the state title belonged to the Ponies, but that didn't change the team's effort.
"Basically after the boys 200 relay, we knew we had it," she said. "It didn't matter if the boys 400 meter relay (disqualified) or what, we had it won. But they still came out and swam wonderfully."
The girls' title came somewhat easier, but one would have a hard time convincing O'Donnell about that. After the girls 100 butterfly event and with five events left, the girls' team had their title won.
"The girls didn't let up and swam tremendously in the 200 free relay," O'Donnell said. "Even though they still had the meet won, they still came out and swam their hearts out, which was nice to see."
Senior Elizabeth Stuker said that while the Hardin boys may have come in overly confident, the Havre girls knew they couldn't.
"We weren't overconfident," Stuker said. "We knew (Hardin) had a chance. We knew we still had to swim smart and be careful and try our best."
In the 200 free relay, the girls team (members Kasie Teske, Gwen Porter, Stuker and Maureen Porter) placed sixth, finishing with a time of 1:51.61. Also adding a ninth-place finish for the girls was the 200 medley relay team with a 2:05.37. Members of the medley relay team include Danielle Barton, Gwen Porter, Maureen Porter and Stuker.
"Everything came together for us," Stuker said. "We wanted it and that's why we did well. We had a family attitude and we wanted it really bad." Stuker also praised members of the relay team, mentioning specifically the sophomores.
"We really needed them and they knew it," Stuker said. "They were up to the challenge."
Stuker also added an 11th-place finish in the 100 butterfly with a 1:08.42 and a 12th-place finish with a 1:15.22.
Stuker goes to school in Chinook and said she is happy to be able to share this with Chinook. She's also saddened by the fact she won't get to swim with her Havre friends again.
"The Havre swimmers were really great to me, but my friends in Chinook were just as great to me," Stuker said. "And it wasn't just the swimmers, it was the parents, too."
Stuker said being in Chinook makes getting to practice difficult sometimes, but that O'Donnell was always willing to work with her.
"Chris was wonderful. She's just an awesome coach," Stuker said. "She was really cool about anything I needed to do in Chinook. If I had to stay after school to have a paper corrected or something, she was totally cool with me having to make up practice at a different time. I don't know what I would have done without her."
Stuker also said her parents were a great help with driving her back and forth.
Gilbreath said the full impact of taking state for the third consecutive year has not quite hit him.
"We've got it and everything," Gilbreath said. "But you are always looking back. It's a great feeling. We definitely earned it. We worked so hard all year. It wasn't just one person. It was a total team effort. This year everybody was working really hard and it showed."
"It takes everybody to win a state title, not just a few people," O'Donnell said. "We're just one big happy family."
One big happy family with a coach everyone admires.
"We have a great coach," Gilbreath said. "Chris is awesome. I don't think we would be able to do it without her. It's nice to have a coach like her. She always encourages us and she makes swimming fun. She's a really great person."
Howland echoed Gilbreath's sentiments and added that O'Donnell adds guidance to the team, always pushes them to get better and is very inspirational.
"She shows us what to do and we get it done during the meets," Howland said. "She spoke to us at the beginning of the year, telling us we need to swim like state champions."
And they did.
To help the swimmers celebrate their third straight state title, the community is invited to participate in a parade Tuesday. The parade will start at the Holiday Village Shopping Center between 5:30 and 6 p.m. and end at the high school, with a celebration at the high school.