The ‘small but mighty’ Aspen girls swim team heads to state with high hopes |

The ‘small but mighty’ Aspen girls swim team heads to state with high hopes

Given the choice, first-year coach Katherine Keel would rather have a small group of talented swimmers than a large group of mediocre athletes. So the “small but mighty” squad she inherited in her first season leading the Aspen High School girls swim team is everything she could have hoped for.

Despite sending only five to the Class 3A state championship meet this week, the Skiers are expected to be among the contenders for the team title at the Veterans Memorial Aquatics Center in Thornton.

“They are going to exceed their own expectations as well as mine, probably, with what they do,” Keel said. “It will be cool to be on deck with the team and they are all seeded in really strategic and high positions, so I think it’s going to turn out really well from a points perspective. I’ve had people ask, ‘Oh, do you think you can win?’ And I think at this point I’m going in with high expectations for individual times and goals as well as how we do as a team.”

Aspen’s group of five headed to state is mostly underclassmen. Three sophomores — Kayla Tehrani, Laila Khan-Farooqi and Ava Cherry — as well as freshman standout Lilly Huggard are the foundation for a bright future. The team’s veteran presence comes from junior Emily Kinney. There are no seniors on the roster.

AHS does have a sixth swimmer in sophomore Gemma Hill, although she won’t travel with the team this weekend to state because of skiing.

“I would say it’s more of a joint leadership effort between all of us because it’s such a small team, you don’t really need a leader,” Kinney said of being the only upperclassman. “We are pretty powerful. We know we are small but mighty and we are close as a team, so we support each other and build each other up.”

Despite the youth, Keel said the Skiers operate more like a veteran team due to all their years in the pool. Maybe new to the high school scene, each has developed through the Aspen Swim Club from a young age and has been to plenty of big meets.

This has made the transition to a new coaching staff this season much easier.

“They might be young as far as age and year in school, but they’ve been swimming for a while, so they know the drill,” Keel said. “They are all pretty well-seasoned swimmers, so they’ve been on deck at big meets. They’ve swam in fast heats. So it hasn’t been that hard. If anything it’s been channeling their focus and attention, but a lot of that comes with time and age.”

In the final poll ahead of state, released Monday, Aspen was ranked No. 4 in 3A, behind only No. 1 Evergreen, No. 2 Salida and No. 3 Glenwood Springs. Evergreen is the defending state champion, while AHS finished fourth as a team last winter. Longmont took the 3A crown in 2018 when Aspen finished eighth.

In 2017, the first year 3A had its own classification in girls swimming, Aspen won the program’s lone state championship behind senior superstar Kennidy Quist — who now swims for Harvard — and rising star Davy Brown, currently a freshman swimmer for Colorado Mesa University. AHS didn’t have a lot of numbers that season, either, reason for the 2020 team to have hope going into the weekend.

“Considering there are only six of us, I think it’s kind of a challenge to go out and win the meet. It’s kind of a tall order,” said Tehrani, who will compete in the 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle at state. “I’m pretty excited. I’m going in placed higher than I was last year, which is kind of setting the bar high for me, but I think I’m going to try and get over the nerves and rise up to the challenge.”

Kinney and Cherry will compete in both the 100 breast and 200 IM; Khan-Farooqi the 100 free and 200 free; and Huggard the 100 back and 200 IM. AHS also has two relays qualified in the 200 medley and 200 free, with Keel saying the swimming foursome won’t be picked until they get to Thornton.

On top of Brown’s two individual titles in 2019 (200 IM, 100 back), Aspen also won the 200 free relay championship last winter with Brown, Kinney, Khan-Farooqi and Tehrani swimming. The Skiers should contend for the win in both relays again this weekend.

“It is possible. It doesn’t have to be a huge team,” Keel said of competing for the state championship. “As far as pulling their weight in meets, we went into the season knowing a lot of this was going to be mostly individual-based because of our size, but I don’t want to understate the power of what each of them can do because collectively, we can, I would say, do very well at state.”

The 3A state swim meet gets underway with prelims on Friday. Finals get underway Saturday afternoon.

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