The Seahawks swim team emerged from their regional championship meet at Palmer on Saturday with an unprecedented victory, packing a host of new personal bests, national rankings, and school records that will cement their legacy at Seward High for years to come. With a complete relay sweep and a combined total of 66 points, to which every member of the team contributed in their individual events, the Seahawks edged out second-place Colony by two points after all scores were tallied. Because both teams turned in top performances on the day of finals, there was no clear winner until the official announcement echoed over the pool speaker.

“We were totally unaware whether or not we were going to be second or first at the conclusion of that,” said head coach Solomon D’Amico. “The boys were huddled up across the pool and they’re listening to, ‘Third place is Kodiak with so many points,’ and then the announcer did a pretty good job delivering this news with a poignant dramatic pause. He said, ‘In second place with 64 points… Colony High School.’ Our boys looked up from their huddle and they started getting all jacked up. We had a lot of peninsula teams really excited for us and fired up.”

Coach D’Amico went on to say that when the Seward boys were announced as regional champions for the first time in school history, the team went ‘bonkers.’

“Rightfully so,” he said. “They worked their tails off and learned a lot of material all season, and they earned the right to have such a great celebration. These kids have been so easy to coach all year. They’re such likable, good-natured and eager-to-learn kids. Coming to work twice a day to work with these two girls and six boys all season, it’s just been a huge honor and nothing but a joy, and I’m extremely proud of all eight of them.”

The lone representative of the Seward girls’ team, freshman Esmé Wilder also made an impressive showing. With sophomore Hallee Schoening unable to compete due to a schedule conflict, Wilder carried the banner for the Seward girls to a new personal best. Entering the season, Wilder’s time in the 100-yard breaststroke had been 1:23.70. In the preliminaries, she shaved over six seconds off that time for a new lifetime best of 1:17.18.

In the final, Wilder contributed a point to the Seahawks’ overall score with a sixth-place finish in the A final, just shy of the previous day’s swim with a 1:17.31.

“Esmé, you just can’t say enough good things about her,” D’Amico said. “Day-in and day-out, she’s the first one to practice every day, always very engaged and ready to take on the challenges that come with the whole swim season, practice-by-practice.”

In the 100-yard butterfly, Wilder chalked up new another best in prelims, with 1:08.47, just under 16 seconds faster than her personal best at the season’s open. In the A final, Esmé again took the sixth spot with a 1:09.54.

“All-in-all, it’s a great way to end the season,” said Coach D’Amico. “She’s got a bright future in this sport. I’ve got a lot of confidence that she’ll be earning her way to state in the years to come.”

For the boys, Wilder’s fellow freshman Iver Gates made a contribution in the 100-yard breaststroke that ultimately accounted for the point difference separating Seward from second-place Colony. In the preliminaries, Gates earned a spot in the A final with a 1:12.50, over eleven seconds better than his best at the beginning of the season. In the final, Gates shaved another 1.5 seconds, for a sixth-place finish at 1:10.93, winning his team a crucial point. 

“He earned a point there, and he kept a Colony senior from earning that point,” D’Amico said. “Only the top six earn points, so that two-point swing was the difference between us sharing the region championship and winning it outright. That’s pretty epic.”

In the 100-yard butterfly, Gates topped his 1:04.09 previous best with a 1:02.85 preliminary time, and then cut even more time with a B final third-place finish — ninth overall — with a 1:01.42.

“He’s knocking on the door of getting through that minute threshold,” D’Amico said. “As a freshman, it’s really impressive.”

The team’s two juniors, twins Nick & Ben Ambrosiani, also contributed crucial points in their individual events.

In the 50-yard freestyle, Nick Ambrosiani topped his previous 23.59 personal best in the preliminaries with a 23.42, which gave him the fourth seed in the A final. That final saw Ambrosiani beating out two of the three swimmers seeded ahead of him for a silver-winning time of 22.69, almost a full second faster than his prelim time, earning his team five points for the day.

“That got us five points right there,” Coach D’Amico said. “That was a major contributing factor. It was really impressive, dipping into that 23-second barrier. It helped us a lot in winning the team title.”

Nick’s brother Ben Ambrosiani competed in the 100-freestyle with a seed time of 50.85. His preliminary 50.95, while slightly slower, earned Ben the third seed for the A final, where he would go on to maintain third with a new lifetime best of 49.64, earning the team an additional four points.

“He dipped into the 50-second range for the first time,” said D’Amico. “Between the two of them, they earned us nine points from their individual events, which was huge.”

The big winners in the individual events were the team’s seniors, Paxton Hill and Jackson Bird, each with a season-capping gold to round off their high school careers before the upcoming state championship meet.

Hill came away from regions with a win in the 100-yard butterfly, earning the team a whopping seven points. With a seed time of 56.08 from an earlier Palmer meet, Hill took the top spot in the preliminaries with a new personal best of 55.51. In his finals swim, with both Homer’s Hunter Fry and Colony’s Isaiah Hulien hot on his heels, Hill found the motivation necessary to shave off an additional 1.75 seconds for a career best 53.76.

“I wouldn’t have been able to drop so much time without this great competition next to me,” he said. “Seeing them definitely pushes me to go faster. Having all these super-fast swimmers in the lanes next to us is almost a necessity to get these huge time drops. Without them, you can’t really gauge how fast you’re going, but seeing their wake out of the corner of your eye really pushes you to go a lot faster.”

After the race, Hill’s reaction to seeing his winning time was priceless, according to D’Amico.

“He looked over to the side of the pool deck and was just like, ‘What?! Is this even real?!’” the coach said. “He goes out his swimming career as region champion. That’s something he can be proud of for a long time.”

For this win and for a full season of top performances, the coaches would go on to vote Paxton Hill as Region 3 Swimmer of the Year.

Hill’s fellow senior Jackson Bird also gave a gold-winning swim in his best event, the 100-yard breaststroke. From his seed time of 1:05.96, Bird earned the second spot in the final with his preliminary time of 1:05.63, a tenth of a second behind the leader, Kenai’s James Berestoff. Yet despite not earning the top spot, Bird came out for the final ready to win.

“When it came time for the final, he was serious as a heart attack,” D’Amico said. “He just walked in motivated, in just the right state of mind to pop off a nice performance.”

“Behind the blocks, I was just trying to focus on what my technique was,” Bird said, “how I’d been swimming the 100-breaststroke the whole year and just trying to focus on what to do the whole time.”

From the outset, Bird led the race, though initially Berestoff was right behind him.

“Off the first 25 and after the second one, I looked over to my left side because I always turn left when I’m doing my open turns,” Bird said. “I saw that one of the other swimmers was really close behind me, so when I pushed off, that gave me a lot of motivation to try to push harder.”

“There was kind of an audible gasp when he did his pulldown and just rocketed ahead of the other swimmers,” D’Amico said. “He totally owned the race. He controlled it from start to finish. He executed all three of his pulldowns super-well and crushed his stroke, got his tempo up and came in like a freight train to establish himself as region champion.”

Bird finished first with a new personal best of 1:03.43, over 2.5 seconds faster than his previous best, earning his team another seven points.

“All these kids, I couldn’t be happier for them,” D’Amico said. “They all had really special performances.”

The crowning achievement of the meet, marked by outstanding swims from Hill, Bird, Gates and both Nick and Ben Ambrosiani, was a complete sweep of all three relay events: the 200-yard medley, 200-yard freestyle and the 400-yard freestyle.

First up was the 200-yard medley, for which the team was seeded first with a 1:44.49, fifteen hundredths from the school record. Iver Gates swam the anchor leg in the preliminaries to free up Nick Ambrosiani for his second place 50-yard freestyle swim. Top-seeded into finals from their 1:45.26 prelim time and now featuring both seniors and both juniors, the team went on to take the win, immortalizing themselves with a new school record of 1:40.72.

“They absolutely crushed the school record,” D’Amico said. “Nick swam a 22.31 as the anchor, which is pretty gosh darn fast. If he was able to pull that time off with a static start, he would be ranked ninth in the state right now. I think even this season he could go under 22. I don’t know what that would be at state but we’re gonna find out!”

Nick’s brother Ben also turned in a new 50-yard backstroke best in the medley relay.

“He’d gone 27.99 in the 50-back to open,” D’Amico said. “He went 26.22, over a second and a half faster. That was really incredible.”

The new record relay time also earned the Seahawks a number four seed at the upcoming state finals in Anchorage this weekend.

“Out of the three, that relay looks like it’s the longest odds to get a podium at state,” said the coach, “but I feel confident that we’ll probably keep cutting time and swim faster here, even into state, so I’m not counting them out. We’re up for the fight.”

For the next relay, the 200-yard freestyle, the team entered the meet with a season best 1:33.91. Their preliminary 1:33.94, only a fraction of a second slower, nonetheless bested second fastest Palmer by almost a second, earning the top seed for finals.

At 1:31.37, the standing school record seemed out of reach, given the team’s prelim time, but again the boys stomped the previous record with 1:30.26 for their second relay win of the meet.

“Lo and behold, these boys went absolutely bonkers come Saturday,” D’Amico said. “They all swam in the 22s. For these four guys to put that together and drop over three seconds from off that race is extremely exciting and very exceptional on their part.”

The winning time also netted the team a top seed for state finals. As of this writing, it also ranked among the top 50 200-freestyle times in the country.

“Going into the weekend, we had the sixth fastest time,” the coach added, “and now we have the top time in the state. That’s including Anchorage schools with almost 20 times as many kids. I’m pretty confident that these guys can go under 1:30. Maybe, if things go well, they can go into the 1:28s.”

In the final event of the meet, the 4x100-yard freestyle relay, the team’s 3:26.78 seed time placed them third in the state before preliminaries and also marked the third time this year Jackson, Paxton, Nick and Ben had set a new school record in that event. In region preliminaries, they upped the ante yet again with a 3:25.81, earning them a top seed in the finals and a choice of music to play them out.

“We had a really good walk-out song for that, to get Jackson fired up: Blunt the Knives from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack,” D’Amico said. “He had just gotten done with earning a region championship in his 100-breast. We surprised him with a song we knew would get him fired up.”

The coach advised his team to be aggressive on their relay exchanges after playing a more conservative hand in the preliminaries to avoid disqualification.

“That ended up working out really well,” he said. “They didn’t get DQ’d this time, and they laid down another school record and lopped off a whole — it’s kind of disgusting what they did — they took off exactly 5.6 seconds from what they did the day before.”

With a new record-setting 3:20.21, the team became 400-yard freestyle region champions and snagged a third seed at state finals.

“I think there’s still a really good shot of these guys possibly making a podium if not winning that event,” D’Amico said, “along with the 4x50-free event. These guys really do a great job of rising to the occasion when the pressure’s on. To take off over eleven seconds for the season on the school record is pretty phenomenal, and I don’t think that there’ll be any challenges for years and years — if not decade s— to come.”

Now officially the top Region 3 swim team in the state, the Seahawk boys will advance to the state finals at Bartlett High School in Anchorage this weekend. A full ongoing update of all times and rankings will be available at swimcloud.com.

“Myself, the kids, all the support we have in the way of parents and our assistant coach, Leslie—we are all extremely excited to see what we can do with their competition,” Coach D’Amico said. “Not to downplay the region we’re in, that we won, but we haven’t gotten to face-off those Anchorage teams a lot, that have a full 2,000+ kids to draw from. We’re pretty fired up to take them on in their home turf, and we’re very much looking forward to it.”