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Freeport swimmer prepares to defend titles

| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 11:50 p.m.
Freeport High School swimmer Bria Otwell poses for a portrait during swim practice at Shady Side Academy on Wednesday December 5, 2012. Otwell is a defending WPIAL Class AA champ in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Freeport High School swimmer Bria Otwell completes the backstroke during swim practice at Shady Side Academy on Wednesday December 5, 2012. Otwell is a defending WPIAL Class AA champ in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Freeport High School swimmer Bria Otwell on Wednesday December 5, 2012. Otwell is a defending WPIAL Class AA champ in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Freeport's Bria Otwell became a freshman sensation last season when she upset older, more experienced swimmers and emerged from the pool with two WPIAL Class AA titles.

Otwell is determined to avoid a sophomore setback but said it won't be easy.

She captured gold medals in the 200-yard individual medley and 500-yard freestyle at the WPIAL finals. She also placed fifth and seventh, respectively, at the PIAA meet.

Otwell's stronger and more experienced. On the other hand, she's no longer a relatively unknown ninth-grader. She's become a top target for competition.

“The WPIAL is still a big challenge,” Otwell said. “There's a bunch of great girls. I'm even more nervous for WPIALs this season. Last year, as a freshman, there were no expectations. Not to sound cocky, but the other girls will be out there for blood. They know my name. They know what I can do. My goal is to win WPIALs again and go for a win at states.”

The WPIAL championships are set for Feb. 26 through March 1, and the state finals will follow in mid-March.

About two months ago, Otwell suffered a partial tear in the quadriceps muscle of her left thigh. The injury didn't require surgery, but she said it will slow her breaststroke, which requires great leg strength, at least for a while. The breaststroke is one of the four styles used in the individual medley.

“The leg doesn't hurt, but it gets fatigued,” Otwell said.

Another major and more positive change, Otwell said, is her method of schooling. Last year, she was cyber schooled, which helped accommodate a grueling practice schedule that often included waking at 4:30 a.m. for a workout before school.

But cyber schooling made it more difficult for Otwell to interact directly with others and enjoy a typical high school experience. She's thrilled to attend public school again, even though her practice schedule still is challenging.

“I missed my friends,” she said.

Also in Class AA, St. Joseph senior Holly Stein is eager to make a run at a WPIAL championship after finishing less than a second short of that goal last season.

Stein (1:07.18) was passed late and placed second to South Fayette's Morgan Fink (1:06.78) in the 100 breaststroke. Again, the title could come down to Stein and Fink, who's also a senior.

“It's something I'm preparing for,” Stein said. “I was really into my race at the beginning, and I could see I was winning. That got into my head a little, and I got out of rhythm. I need to try to focus more and concentrate on my own race rather than what other people are doing.”

Stein, who has scholarship offers from Division II California (Pa.) and Edinboro, also finished ninth in the 200 IM at WPIALs. She qualified for states in both of her primary events.

Stein started lifting weights this past summer and feels much stronger heading into this season. Even though she'd like to win a WPIAL title, she said her times are more important to colleges.

“I would like to get around 1:06 or maybe even 1:05 (in the 100 breaststroke),” Stein said.

Among local boys, Knoch senior Ian Lindsey appears to be the top returning swimmer after taking third place in the 100 breaststroke at the WPIAL Class AA championships.

Lindsey (1:01.50) had the misfortune to compete against two standout seniors. Quaker Valley's Bobby Francis (58.44) and Shady Side Academy's Grant Zentgraf (58.60) each broke the previous WPIAL meet record.

Francis and Zentgraf have graduated, leaving Lindsey among the favorites to claim the crown this season. Indiana senior John Haycock (1:01.56) took fourth and could challenge Lindsey for top honors.

“John Haycock is very fast,” Lindsey said. “I raced him (in YMCA competition) this year already and beat him. I'm hoping it will be between me and him. He'll push me to get better.”

Lindsey, who has received interest from Division II Clarion, injured his shoulder during the summer but said he feels “great.”

“It was a slight labrum tear,” Lindsey said. “I had to work on building more muscle. It wasn't anything major. It would have turned into something bigger if I hadn't been careful.”

In coaching news, former WPIAL standout Beth (Karaica) Brancato was hired to lead the swim teams at her alma mater, Highlands.

Brancato earned All-American recognition at Nebraska in 1997, '98 and '99. For the Cornhuskers, she was a member of two relay teams — the 200 freestyle (1:31.06) and 400 freestyle (3:18.46) — that still hold school records.

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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