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LA gears up for tough test at Academy

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By Mike Cote

As the state swim meet inches closer and closer, some members of the Los Alamos Hilltopper swimming and diving team are feeling it.One of the biggest reminders of the title meet’s closeness is this weekend. Los Alamos will compete at the Albuquerque Academy Invitational this weekend, which is held at the Natatorium on the Academy campus, the site of the state title meet.“I’m feeling a little bit of pressure,” Hilltopper senior Kara Leasure said. “I’m going to go out, do my best, try my hardest, and if it pays off at the end, good.”The Hilltoppers, as usual, are on the short list of state title contenders. At this stage of the season, the girls appear to be better off than the boys — the girls have 26 state cut times compared to the boys’ 14 — but there’s still plenty of swimming left to do.Although the competition at Academy is usually pretty fierce, with some of the top teams in the state expected to show this weekend, this could be a good week for both Hilltopper teams to make state qualifying times.The tough competition is one factor, as it tends to push swimmers to perform their best, but another big factor may be the Natatorium’s pool itself.“It’s actually very different,” swimmer Vanessa Chavez said. “I used to think it was all in (my) mind, but I’ve never had a bad swim there. It’s a great pool and it’s a great environment.”Chavez is among the many hopeful Hilltoppers trying to pick up a cut time this weekend. Chavez, a sprinter, has come close to her qualifying marks in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle this season and is hoping to pick up at least one and possibly both at Academy.In all, 15 teams are expected to compete at the meet, although no Albuquerque Public Schools teams will be competing, something ‘Topper head coach Bev Leasure said is often the norm. Many of the top APS teams are either competing against one another or taking the week off.Among the top teams scheduled to compete are Las Cruces, St. Michael’s and St. Pius along with, of course, the perennial powerhouse Chargers.This will be only the second time the Hilltoppers and Chargers have gone head-to-head this season. They met in the season-opening Peter B. Barney Memorial Relays, where the ‘Topper girls took first and the two teams took the combined team title.The boys have won one team event this season, the Dec. 2 Los Alamos Open. They would love to have a meet like Academy under their belt heading into the season’s home stretch.“Overall, we’re improving,” team captain Paco Venneri said. “Our strokes have definitely shown improvement. We all have our baseeebasically (we need) fine tuning.”Venneri is also a sprinter who has his eye on the 50 and 100 freestyle events. However, as many around the state have noted, the boys 50 freestyle qualifying time, 23.39 seconds, is lower than the 2006-2007 mark. A small pool made last season’s mark, and Venneri pointed out that many of those who did qualify graduated.“I think they did go too low, at least for the guys,” he said. “Gaining even half a second is really difficult. It’s just about the hardest thing you can get.”With just slightly more than a month before the state meet, only 12 boys have made the 23.39 mark, and only Academy and Rio Rancho have more than one swimmer who has qualified.Today marked the start of the diving competition. Los Alamos has already put two divers into state competition, Lauren Bucklin and Lisa Anne Hendricks.Hendricks was scheduled to compete today, but Bucklin is out with an injured back. Bucklin tweaked her back at last week’s St. Michael’s Invitational, which turned out to be somewhat more serious than it originally appeared. She said she’d probably be ready to go again by next week’s Farmington Invitational.“I’m disappointed, but I don’t want to push it too much,” she said of having to skip Academy.During this season, Bucklin said she’s felt good about how she’s been executing her dives and wants to continue working on her established dives from now until the state meet, not wanting to get too experimental at this stage of the season.“My front 1-1/2 (somersault) is looking really nice, and my front twister is alright,” she said.Some excellent divers were scheduled to compete at today’s event, including St. Michael’s Laura Lee Thomas, who currently holds the top cumulative score among the girls with a 283.45 and Santa Fe’s Dylan Whitley, who holds the same distinction on the boys side with a cumulative 289.60.Saturday’s first swimming heat is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.“I’m basically hoping the training we put in will pay off, “ Kara Leasure said. “I have a lot of confidence in the team. We’ll do well. It’s still nerve-wracking, though.”