|First Combined Crown in 25 Years for Bluebirds|
|Twitter Photo. The Highlands Bluebirds Swimming and Diving teams claimed the combined state championships at the University of Kentucky on Saturday.|
The Bluebirds brought one home Saturday winning the combined state championship for the first time since 1995 with 205 points. Highlands edged Louisville Eastern by three points for the crown at the University of Kentucky.
"It was exciting," said Kevin Nieporte, Highlands Director of Athletics. "There were so many events that contributed. It was awesome. My first phone call was to Nancy Barre. I had to call her and let her know because she was the coach of that 1995 team."
The championship came down to the last event in the 400-yard Freestyle Relay. But the Highlands team of juniors Mac Russell, Jack Banks, Will Griffith and sophomore Sam Jones pulled off a second-place finish in three minutes, 10.76 seconds to rack up 34 points and pull off the combined title.
"When it came to that last relay, we had to have a certain scenario happen," said Amanda Johnson, Highlands Head Coach. "As soon as it happened, it was like, 'Wow. We did it.' That was one of our goals. Of course there are a lot of factors that play into Combined because you have boys and girls swimming together. You just don't know what other teams out there have across the state. Teams are going to change from year to year."
The Highlands boys finished state runner-up with 193 points after taking third last year. Louisville St. Xavier once again ran away with the state championship with 592 points. The Tigers have won 56 state championships overall including 32 in a row dating back to 1988 when Elizabethtown won it.
Russell and Banks claimed individual state championships scoring 20 points each. Banks won the 100 Breaststroke title in 55.65 seconds and Russell won the 50 Free in 20.63 seconds. Both are school records.
Banks earned Automatic All-American honors with the title. The state meet record is held by St. Xavier's Keefer Barnum in 2017 of 54.36 seconds.
"(State champion) has a nice ring to it," Banks said. "It's probably the best swim meet I've ever been to. This team has a special place in my heart. It's been a long season. It was a long day. I was proud of everyone that we got it done. Everything had to go perfectly for us to win and it did. The team win matters the most to me."
Russell became the second 50 Free champion in school history and earned All-American consideration. Louisville Trinity's Hunter Tapp owns the 50 Free state record in 19.93 seconds set in 2019. The only other boys state champion in the event for Highlands came in 1966.
"Before the final race, I knew that I was top seed going in and winning state has been a goal that I've been working for all season long," Russell said. "I could feel it was within arms reach. I was really excited, but also super, super nervous. It was a little bit of pressure. Walking up to the blocks, it was nothing but business. I heard Return of the Mack (by Mack Morrison) on the speakers. That was a fun surprise by the coaches because I did not intend to make that request."
Russell also took second in the 100 Freestyle. He swam it in 45.81 seconds to score 17 points for the Bluebirds.
Banks became the fourth individual in Highlands boys swimming and diving history to win the 100 Breaststroke and the sixth state title overall. Scott Van Epps won it three years in a row in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Highlands also won it in Class AA in 1969 and 1966 when Claude Wilson won it.
Banks also scored points in the 100 Butterfly. He took eighth in 51.08 seconds to score 11 points.
There have been five individual state champions on both sides since Johnson became head coach in 2011. Connor Downard won the 500 Freestyle in 2011 in 4:32.08 for the Highlands boys and Finn Murphy won the one-meter diving crown in 2018 with 452.6 points. Carly Hill won the one-meter diving state championship in 2014 on the girls side with 439.5 points.
Jones and Griffith scored points in the 200 Freestyle. Jones finished 11th in 1:45.19 for six points and Griffith took 13th in 1:47.43 for four points. Jones also finished fifth in the 500 Freestyle in 4:43.08.
Highlands also finished second in the 200 Medley Relay in 1:37.75. Banks and Russell swam legs on that team along with senior Tyler Brown and junior Harrison Pawsat.
All three Highlands relay teams placed in the top five. The 200 Freestyle Relay team of Jones, Pawsat, Griffith and freshman Matt Herfel took fifth in 1:30.49.
"A lot of our swimmers have been competing at state for a couple years now," Johnson said. "But it's really anyone's race. Getting down to Lexington and making it to the top 16 and making the finals then to the top eight is a hard thing to do. To have two boys win in the same meet is amazing. It shows the hard work and dedication."
Sophomore Reece Guthier started Highlands off strong in the one-meter diving event on Thursday. He took 12th with 373.20 points good for five points.
The Highlands girls took 28th with 12 points. Highlands senior Caroline Sand scored all 12 points. She finished eighth in the 100 Freestyle in 55.95 seconds to score 11 points and 16th in the 50 Free in 26 seconds to score one point.