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Hilltoppers teams keep their eyes on the prize

SANTA FE, N.M. — A year ago, the Los Alamos High School boys and girls swim teams were powered by 12 seniors who helped the Hilltoppers girls to fourth place and the boys to eighth place.

Reaching those heights again might be a bit more difficult, said coach Stu Corliss said.

“But we’ve had a good season and we’ve got a lot of people qualified, and I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said of his squads. “The boys team is really scrappy, feisty and competitive, but perhaps on paper have less talent than the girls. They’re fighting for respect.”

And perhaps nobody on the boys side of things is more emblematic of those traits than senior co-captain Neil Wilkerson.

He’ll be competing in the state meet in an individual event for the first time, earning a spot in the 50-yard freestyle.

Los Alamos High School senior NeilWilkerson finally qualified for todays state meet as an individual, earning his way in the 50-yard freestyle.

“This is something I’ve been chasing for a really long time,” Wilkerson said. “For someone who never had a whole ton of talent and had to grind for any skill, it was tough. But it’s worth it in the end, especially if you’ve been chasing it for four years. It’s a very self- gratifying experience because nobody does it but you. When the soccer team wins state, they do it as a team, but this is a you effort. It’s very special, specifically to you.”

Wilkerson is seeded 19th and will have to make up some ground in today’s preliminaries to qualify for Saturday’s finals, but that’s not really even a concern for him.

“I think (today) is more about enjoying my last meet as a senior,” he said. “But improving is always something I should focus on.”

I a Shiina, who has some big goals, including trying to improve on her fourth-place finish in the butterfly last season.

“Since this is going to be my last season, I really would like to break the school record in the 100 fly,” she said. “Right now, I’m a half-second away.”

She seeded third at 59.70 seconds and also qualified in the backstroke.

Schools records are also on the mind of junior Jillian Bennett.

The third and final of the trio of Bennett swimming sisters, Jillian is looking to break 26 seconds in the 50 (she’s seeded seventh at 26.02) and challenge the school mark of 25.40. She also seeded fifth in the 100 breaststroke and is eyeing the school mark of 1:06.41.

Bennett is a multi-sport athlete, competing in the pole vault in track and field.

“My freshman year, I really wanted to join track and I had been thinking about what event I wanted to do, and I thought pole vault would be so cool,” she said. “I got into it and really worked hard at it, and made state my first year.”

Although there are virtually no similarities between swimming and pole vaulting, swimming does prepare her for the track season, Bennett said, although track will never replace swimming in her heart.

“Coming from swimming, I’m always in good shape, so going into track is real easy because I don’t have to get into shape. But they’re very different,” she said. “I’ve been doing swimming so long now, though, and the swim team is so much of a family.”

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