For nearly 15 years, Ashland Area YMCA has served as host to the Kentucky Y Competitive Swim League State Championships.
The difference this time is that the local team has the numbers and young talent to make a strong run at the overall title.
The meet returns to Ashland this weekend for the 13th time since 1998.
“I think fourth has been our best finish as a team,” Barracudas head coach Ryan Ferguson said Monday. “We have a really good shot this year.”
Nine teams including more than 460 swimmers are expected to compete in the six-lane pool Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Beaumont Centre Family YMCA of Lexington — also nicknamed the Barracudas — is the five-time defending champion and will send about 100 boys and girls to the age-group state meet.
Ashland can’t quite match that total, but plans to have 77 swimmers in action. Thanks to a bump in membership, the AAY team now numbers about 90 from the Ashland Y and its satellite program in Morehead.
“It’s by far our largest (team),” said Ferguson, who credits part of the growth to increased interest in swimming following the 2012 Summer Olympics, which featured a strong showing in the pool by the United States.
With a larger team, Ashland’s Barracudas will have enough to cover all the relay events for a change.
“Our problem in the past was even though we had our share of strong swimmers, we couldn’t fill some of the relays,” Ferguson said. “This is the first time we’ve had enough. It gives us a chance to compete.”
There’s a strong indicator that the battle for the top spot will be tight. Ferguson scored out the meet based on entry times and said that only six points separated Beaumont from Ashland.
“But I expect a better performance from our swimmers,” said Ferguson, noting his team’s first-place showings at a sprint meet in Florence, Ky., and the Paris-Bourbon County Invitational. He said all nine state teams participated in both events.
“Our kids have been looking really good in the water, and that helps their confidence, too,” Ferguson said.
The AAY Barracudas have only four high school seniors and are especially strong in the 11-12 and 13-14 age groups, which bodes well for the future.
“What’s exciting to me is how young we are,” said volunteer assistant coach Jennifer Daniels, who has two boys on the team. “The future with this team is scary.”
Friday’s meet schedule begins at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday both include two sessions — 8:30 a.m. for age 10-under; 1 p.m. for 11-over.
Staging an event this size calls for considerable volunteer help. Ferguson said 50-60 parents of AAY swimmers have already put in between 400-500 hours in preparation. The meet itself covers about 26 hours with dozens of workers handling a variety of duties.
“We have great support,” Ferguson said. “It’s pretty amazing to think about.”
Sponsors include King’s Daughters Medical Center, Ashland Community and Technical College, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, Golden Corral, Texas Roadhouse, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s, IHOP and Jolly Pirate Donuts.
Local restaurants and hotels, now heavily booked, will benefit from the influx of visitors.
“It’s good for the community,” Ferguson said. “Every year, this meet brings a lot of people here.”
The Ashland Y has never charged admission to the state championships. One of the team’s oldest swimmers, Parker Touchton, suggested to Ferguson that all participants this year bring a non-perishable food item, which will go to a River Cities Harvest food drive.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Ferguson said. “All the other coaches are on board. Even our Y members can bring in cans of food during the weekend.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.