By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A week into the swimming season, Stillwater High School coach Kurt Goebel realizes he has a lot to work on.
The normally stacked relay teams may be a touch slower without Sydney Goad or Max Johnson. In fact, no real star has emerged yet.
And yet something tells the veteran coach he could be hoisting not one but two state titles at the end of the year.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be this year or not,” Goebel said. “I know next year will probably be the year where I don’t think there will be any teams that touch the girls, but this year it’s going to be a pretty tough battle between us and Fort Gibson.
“The boys could certainly finish in the top three, depending on how much depth we have. They could even make a run for the title, depending on how our relays play out and our individual placers.”
Even with the loss of several key elements from last year’s state runner-up and a Pioneer team that finished eighth in state, there’s a reason Goebel is confident going into the season.
Sometimes it’s not about what’s missing — it’s what you have.
And for Goebel that means a lot of young talent that has already been through the trials and tribulations of swimming against the best in the state.
“We have about six boys and four girls that are experienced swimmers,” Goebel said. “They’re kind of carrying the load right now until the other kids catch up and start contributing more. Normally that takes a semester before they start helping out.”
Typically, juniors Alex Thomas and Brooke Njaa are the ones grabbing all the attention for the Lady Pioneers. But while the duo is expected to be the leaders on an extremely young Stillwater squad, it’s a freshman that has made the biggest splash heading into the season.
Isabell Smith, daughter of Oklahoma State wrestling coach John Smith, has established herself as a possible replacement for the departed Goad.
“I’ve got a little girl named Isabell Smith that seems to be stepping up to the plate pretty well,” Goebel said. “She has a good 200 time and she’s getting faster in her backstroke and 100-free. She’ll fit in just fine.”
But Smith won’t be the only one new to the pool this fall. Goebel also picked up a pair of athletes that are used to shining for Stillwater — softball player Baby Phares and volleyball player Sarah Carpenter.
“Swimming is pretty tough,” Goebel said. “They’re learning that the training in swimming is a little different than it is in the other sport, but I’m happy that they’re taking on the challenge. Baby has done some swimming with the (YMCA) team over the years, but this is a new thing for Sarah and they’re slowly but surely learning the ropes of it.”
While the Lady Pioneers will have to find a way to make up for Goad, that won’t be as big of a problem for the boys.
Of Stillwater’s big six, four of them — Charles Clark, Matthew Tree, Layne Njaa and Kyle Goebel — are seniors. Throw in Trey Cushing, Nate Carman, Ben Cowles, three guys who played a big role last season, and it’s easy to see why Goebel is so high on the Pioneers.
“They’re leading the team,” Goebel said. “When you throw in guys like Layne Njaa, Trey Cushing, Nate Carman and Ben Cowles — all guys who are pretty experienced swimmers — you’ve got a lot of leadership, and I think they’re leading the team really well.”
No doubt, the Pioneers are going to need that leadership this year to help them adjust to changes down the road.
The Stillwater boys will be dropping from Class 6A to Class 5A — joining the girls squad, which already competes at 5A.
But while the change in class may be different, Goebel says the competition won’t change.
“I don’t think it matters too much,” Goebel said. “I think we’re going to train as hard as we would if we were in 6A. There’s a lot of good competitors in 5A, so I think the competition will be tough for them but I think they’re looking forward to it.”
And with so much promise ahead, it’s safe to say Goebel is looking forward to this season, as well.
Sure it may not end with a sweep of state titles, but Goebel feels at the very least both squads should be able to add to their individual titles.
“I’d like to try to win the medley and the 4x100,” Goebel said. “We think we have a good shot with the boys. We’re going to have to develop another girl who can swim it in 59 seconds, which I don’t see right now, but hopefully somebody will step up to the plate and be able to do it.”