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Sweeney's switch propels Indians' 200 free relay team to state

The senior switched from the anchor leg to the second leg in week of Cowapa League Championships

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO: JAKE MCNEAL - Indians senior Trace Sweeney moved from the anchor leg to the second leg of the 200-yard free relay to help himself, Justin Melling, Matthew Kulp and Austin Sharp qualify for the OSAA Class 4A/3A/2A/1A Swimming State Championships.Coming into this season, we knew we had two strong sprinters on the roster: Senior team captain Trace Sweeney and junior Austin Sharp. We knew Trace and Austin were going to be major factors in the sprints, and when discussing the upcoming season, my plan was to focus on the boys' 200 free relay and see if we could find two other boys to step up and make up a dynamic quartet.

With so many new swimmers coming into the season, we just were not sure who those two individuals may be.

Trace came into fall practices in great shape and with a great perspective on the season. He had goals he was vocal about, namely setting a school record in the 50 freestyle. We talked often about how great it would have been if several past swimmers were still around to be at their peak at the same time with him.

Trace was dominant in the first part of the season, going undefeated in the 50 freestyle over the course of the first half — including dominating the field in the Tillamook Invitational and finishing first in the 50 and 100 free at the nine-team River City Invitational in December.

In January we came to the meat of the Cowapa League dual season, and teams entered their best swimmers in the 50 and 100 free. While it is unclear if the pressure was mounting, it was clear Trace was not swimming the times he swam earlier in the season. He appeared to be tightening up late in races, which started to frustrate him, and even when he felt fast his times weren't what we were used to seeing. We talked many times to try to work through the mental aspect of racing in such tight races. I reminded him that he was swimming excellent times in practice workouts and was in prime shape. We talked about just trying to relax and maintain technique through his starts, turns and swims.

Justin Melling, a sophomore first-year swimmer, and Matthew Kulp, a senior on the team for the first time, stood out and dropped their times significantly. We felt we found the two additional legs of the relay we needed to be competitive with the rest of the league and district teams.

We added both to the 200 free relay and began to see our times improve and our finishes climb higher and higher in the standings.

At Astoria, on Jan. 27, Trace experienced the same frustration in the 50 yard freestyle against Astoria's top sprinter. In the 200 freestyle relay, Astoria lined up their top four sprinters against our relay and edged us by .08 seconds.

After thinking about it, I gathered up the four relay members and offered the opportunity to have a open discussion. League championships were that week, and it was clear we had a shot at all-league status.

I handed them a piece of paper with all the past all-league performers and asked them to count how many other relays had achieved the feat.

They found only one.

I told them if they wanted to be on that list and talked about for years to come, they had an excellent opportunity to do so but were going to have to knock off the same Astoria team that beat them days earlier.

I felt it was worth making a change to the relay lineup. I told them I was not going to force them to make a change — that was their decision. I told them a story about my only experience I could relate it to: My track coach in high school saw our senior anchor leg in the 400 relay tighten up at the end of races whenever we ran against the Junction City team. At the state meet, our coach switched our second leg, who was an underclassman, with our senior anchor.

We ended up winning a state championship in that relay 20 years ago.

I proposed to our relay team we make a similar change, that we consider having Trace go second and move Austin to the anchor position. Trace looked at me and stated to his teammates that he did in fact feel a lot of pressure in swimming the anchor leg. As team captain in the anchor position he unquestionably earned over his career, I would have let him decide if he wanted to keep the relay order the way it was.

Instead, he looked at me and told us he wanted to do what was best for the team. He was willing to swap the anchor position with Austin and go second.

At the league championship meet on Feb. 5, the boys finished second to Seaside and beat Astoria by two seconds to earn all-league honors. Trace swam a solid time in the second leg — but not to where he wanted to be — and Austin excelled in the anchor leg by swimming almost a second faster than he ever had. We were all very excited to accomplish this goal and, having swam 1 minute, 43 seconds, I told them we still had not swam our best at the same time.

I told them it was going to be a fast race at district and that we would have to win or swim at least a 1:41 to have a shot to qualify for the state championships.

I told Trace that what he was experiencing reminded me when one of our past elite swimmers, Erin Heath, was struggling in the 400 relay splits. I told Erin that no matter what time she swam, I believed in her and was going to help her ride out the rut she was in.

Heath swam her best time ever in the state final in that relay to help them place fourth in her senior year.

Five days before the 200 freestyle district final, I reminded Trace about his commitment he'd shown in practice, his persistence to keep grinding through his struggles and to continue to believe in himself — because I did. I told him that there were 12 spots statewide, and for him and his teammates to go and get one.

There are going to be several lasting memories I'll have of Trace Sweeney after this season ends. One is his willingness to sacrifice a more prestigious relay anchor leg to make his team better. Another is seeing him accelerate past a Rainier swimmer and catching a Seaside swimmer in his second 200 free relay leg in this year's league finals with a split that reminded you why he is one of the best sprinters to come through Scappoose High.

I'll also remember his comment days before the District meet: "I'm willing to do whatever makes our team better."

I believe his willingness to sacrifice for his team is a reason he and his teammates are only the second relay team ever to make it to the state championships and are the first 200 freestyle relay to ever qualify from SHS. It's also a big reason they are chasing the school record this coming weekend.

I've believed for a long time that sports don't build character — they bring out your character.

Trace may still break a school record before he graduates — it just might not be the one he thought when he walked into Eisenschmidt Pool on Nov. 15.