Phoenix claims first girls state crown

GRESHAM — If the Phoenix girls swim team was to win a state title on Saturday, it would have to do it without the vocal encouragement of coach Jim Heath.

Having lost his voice on Friday night, Heath could only mouth the word "awesome" after his Pirates ran away with their first-ever girls 4A/3A/2A/1A state championship behind the strength of first-place finishes in all three relays and standout individual performances from senior Gabe Deen and freshman Alyse Darnall.

"We're amazed," said a beaming Deen, four medals around her neck. "All of us had a great year."

And a great night to boot, highlighted by first-place performances in the 200-yard medley, 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle relays.

Meanwhile, Cascade Christian's two-person team of Breanna Sapienza and Aaron Ghiglieri brought home three state titles in individual events and each earned All-America status.

Sapienza won the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, while Ghiglieri took the 100 fly and was second in the 50 free.

Phoenix started strong, winning the opening event of the meet — the 200 medley relay — in 1 minute, 59.95 seconds, which narrowly edged district rival Hidden Valley. That race turned on the last leg, which saw senior Marie Kempf make up ground and bring the crowd to a frenzy with a flurried finish.

"By the time the fourth leg comes around, it's insane in here and everyone's freaking out," said Kempf, who joined teammates Deen, Olivia Sanchez and Darnall on the podium. "My favorite part is when you hit the water and it's silent, then you come back up to breathe and it's so loud."

Deen, the defending state champ in the 100 backstroke, took second place in the event this year (1:03.51) and third in the 100 butterfly (1:04.26), while Darnall added a third-place finish in the 500 free (5:43.65) a fifth in the 200 free (2:05.82).

The 200 free relay team of Kempf, freshman Arin Fitch, freshman Kylee Burks and Deen then picked up where the first relay left off, again edging Hidden Valley to earn the top spot on the podium with a time of 1:46.97. The 400 free relay team of Burks, Kempf, Sanchez and Darnall then sealed the deal with yet another gold, this time outpacing Taft with a time of 3:57.76.

"The majority of us had our best splits, and the main thing is we all had fun," said Kempf, noting the team didn't consider itself title contenders until after districts, when squad members realized they hadn't lost to a 4A team all season. "We knew our relays were fast, but we had no idea we'd be at the top."

The Pirates scored 57 points, easily outpacing Henley (35) and Taft (34).

The freshman Sapienza and junior Ghiglieri pushed each other all season.

"She's not quite as fast as me," Ghiglieri quipped after earning automatic All-American status in the 100 fly and setting two personal records along the way. "We push each other in practice quite a bit — she helps me pace and I help her, too."

Not that Sapienza needed much help in her first state meet. She dominated each of her races, winning both the 50 free (24.74) and 100 fly (56.39) with ease and earning All-American consideration in the latter.

Confident beyond her years, Sapienza said she was relaxed, focused and determined not to "crash" in the last 15 yards of the butterfly.

"I just fought through it," she said. "I wasn't going to let it overcome me."

Ghiglieri battled with 4A record-holder Colin Eaton of Corbett in the finals of the 50 free, earning All-American consideration with his second-place time of 21.11 seconds.

But it was his 100 fly performance that stunned the crowd. Ghiglieri clocked 49.74 seconds and finished more than three seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, crushing the state record he set on Friday by nearly two seconds.

"My goal was to break 50 (seconds) and I knew I got out fast enough," Ghiglieri said. "The last 25 I tightened up, but I pumped my arms and my legs as fast as I could and muscled through it all the way.

"It was willpower."

It was also a coming out party for the Challengers, who started competing as a program just this season.

Head coach Leslie Ghiglieri said she's fortunate to start a program with such experienced swimmers (Aaron Ghiglieri competed for South Medford his freshman and sophomore years, and both Challengers are longtime club standouts), and she hopes their success multiplies.

"We're hoping this will create interest in the school," Leslie Ghiglieri said, still smiling broadly after presenting her swimmers with all four of their medals. "And hopefully, we'll pick up some novice swimmers."

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