This Valencia High girls swim team is good. Very good. And people are talking about it.
The Vikings are legitimate contenders to win a CIF-Southern Section Division 1 title. They finished seventh last year and then added one of the nation’s most talented prep swimmers over the offseason.
That could equal the program’s first CIF title and it should mean a return to the Foothill League throne.
But Hart, winner of 33 of the last 36 titles, is hardly a pushover.
Here’s a look at each Foothill League team in the order they finished at league finals last year:
Coming off its first Foothill League title since 2013, longtime coach Steve Neale believes this Hart team may be one of the strongest he’s ever had.
“We don’t have the high, high end (swimmers),” Neale said, “but we have a whole group of really solid performers.”
Brooke Helgeson, Taryn Toledo, Dani Merlo, Emily Niemi, Grace Hill and Madison Wolpert headline the team’s returners, while Taylor Toledo, Maxine Catig, Hope Hill and Megan Soto provide newfound depth.
Hope Hill and Taylor Toledo are Grace’s and Taryn’s younger sisters.
Soto, a freshman volleyball player and high-school only swimmer, has turned heads early.
“She’s a really pleasant surprise,” Neale said. “We started her out in the JV lanes not really knowing her background, but she’s a racer.”
Helgeson, a junior, took third in the consolation final of the 500 free at CIF finals last season and will step into now-graduated Alyssa Schultz’s shoes leading Hart’s distance freestylers.
The Vikings are loaded. They have high-level NCAA Division 1 swimmers and plenty of depth to pick up crucial points when it comes to league and CIF finals.
First, Valencia gets University of Tennessee-bound Nikol Popov back after a year hiatus to train for last summer’s Olympic trials.
Popov, the No. 5 girls recruit nationally in the class of 2017 according to SwimSwam.com, won the 100 breast title at CIF as a sophomore in 2015 and the 200 individual medley and 100 breast titles as a freshman.
Last season, senior Kaila Wong won the Division 1 title in the 100 breast. Before heading to the University of Alabama next year, she’ll bolster the Vikings in some combination of the IM, fly, breast and 50 free.
Then there’s junior Julia Wolf, who took third in the 50 free at CIF last year. Since then she’s shown tremendous growth.
“Julia is swimming amazing,” said Valencia coach Kathy Rosenast. “The transformation she’s made in a year … she’s always been fast, but the stroke is beautiful and fabulous and she’s doing great things.”
Sonaly Wintermute, Allison Cho, Jin Young Yi and Hailey Chua headline a strong supporting group that will make Valencia tough to beat.
Sophia Morici headlines West Ranch team that will enter Foothill League competition Thursday against Valencia under first-year coach Jeremy Anderson.
Morici, a junior, took eighth in the 200 free at CIF finals last year and finished 11th in the 100 fly.
Marika VanGent, Jennifer Wong and Tali Skabelund also return for a team that took third at SCV Relays on Friday. West Ranch scored 48 points as a team, six ahead of fourth-place Saugus.
Anderson, a longtime Canyons Aquatic Club coach, said the Wildcats’ goal is to win a Foothill League title, but he added that he knows it’d be a tall task to overcome Valencia and Hart.
Prior to coaching at West Ranch, Anderson coached the varsity team at Thousand Oaks High in 2003 and 2004.
The Centurions’ lineup remains in flux, with a number of talented swimmers who swim the same strokes populating the roster.
“I really don’t know exactly what everyone is going to be doing in league,” said Saugus co-head coach Krista Botton. “We just kind of have to figure that out still.”
Here’s what Botton’s talking about. Allison Schepper is a flyer. So is talented freshman Viviana Raker.
Cameron Helm is a breaststroker who may also swim the IM.
The same could be said for Brookelynn Wesselhoff.
Amber Montoya will likely swim backstroke, with Raker also swimming distance free.
The Cowboys feature one of the league’s best individuals in Cal Berkeley-bound senior Alexa Skorus Neely.
Neely took second in the 200 IM and third in the 100 breast at CIF finals last season. First-year coach Darren Stieff is hoping to have her at three or four Foothill League dual meets before she makes another run at a CIF title.
The Cowboys are looking to also advance a relay to CIF. That group would likely include Skorus Neely and three of the following: Jessica McKeever, MacKenzie Krestul, Brooke Carlucci and Joelle Zimmerman.
The Grizzlies secured the first Foothill League dual meet win in program history last season and will continue to build under first-year coach Whitney Cox. Cox, a former Saugus High swimmer, served as the team’s assistant last season before replacing Jennifer Leite this season.
Golden Valley’s varsity has only 11 swimmers this year, headlined by Megan Noguera, a senior sprint freestyler and sophomore Hazel Aguiluz.
The Grizzlies focus will be dropping time, not necessarily CIF qualification.
“(We’re) looking to improve our relays and knock a bunch of time off,” Cox said.