Challenge of PIAA championships excites Highlands freshman standout

Bill West
| Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 10:06 p.m.

Though she already owns two WPIAL Class AA swimming titles and has yet to lose a race in any individual high school event this season, Highlands freshman Bailey Bonnett refuses to classify herself as a habitual frontrunner.

Her experiences at YMCA state and national swim championships apparently have kept her humble.

“I don't really think I'm usually the top seed,” she said. “At (YMCA) nationals, I don't even think I'm in the fastest heat.”

So when the PIAA released the state championship psych sheets Wednesday, Bonnett took the news that she didn't have the fastest times in her events, the 200-yard individual medley and the 500 freestyle, in stride.

The PIAA championships begin March 12 for Class AAA swimmers and March 14 for Class AA; all events are at Bucknell's Kinney Natatorium in Lewisburg.

“I was actually really excited with how I was seeded,” said Bonnett, whose 200 IM time (2:06.12) and 500 freestyle time (5:00.24) are third-fastest in Class AA. “I thought those were pretty good seeds.”

Those times are personal bests she achieved during the WPIAL championships Feb. 27 and 28 at Pitt's Trees Pool. Bonnett won the 200 IM by 3.42 seconds over Knoch's Brooke Zukowski and topped second-place finisher Bria Otwell of Freeport by 2.65 seconds in the 500.

Bonnett, a friend and former youth club teammate of both Zukowski and Otwell, considered her WPIAL competition strong enough to push her to new heights.

What the PIAA has to offer, though, thrills Bonnett.

“I'd say that I was excited for a challenge,” Bonnett said of her reaction to seeing the state championship psych sheets. “It pushes me to try to work harder and be as fast as they are.”

While Bonnett will make her PIAA debut, St. Joseph sophomore Sabrina Bowman, the WPIAL Class AA champion in the 100 butterfly and runner-up in the 100 backstroke, will deliver an encore that she hopes can surpass her freshman-season performance, in which she placed seventh in the fly and 13th in the backstroke.

With personal-best times of 56.69 in the 100 fly and 58.08 in the 100 backstroke, Bowman is seeded fourth in the latter event and third in the former.

“I'm still nervous, but I'm excited to see what I can do,” she said. “I was pretty surprised with my seeds. I didn't know I'd be top three. I also know that everyone can do just as good as me, so that makes me nervous, but I'm going to just do my best and see what happens.”

The Alle-Kiski Valley's most seasoned state meet participant, Freeport's Otwell, continues to search for her place in the ever-shifting landscape of WPIAL and PIAA swimming. As a freshman, she won WPIAL titles in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle and then placed fifth and eighth in the PIAA in those events. She defended her WPIAL 200 IM title as a sophomore but placed 16th in the PIAA, while she took third and 14th in the WPIAL and PIAA, respectively, in the 500 freestyle.

Those results, paired with a ho-hum offseason, led Otwell to consider quitting the sport as this winter approached.

“I felt hopeless, and I felt like I was wasting my time,” said Otwell, who took second in the WPIAL 500 freestyle and third in the 200 IM last week. “I wasn't moving anywhere. But at one point this season, I told myself to shut up and just took a hard look at what I'd done.

“I've grown up, and I don't look at things like I used to. … I feel like I've taken a big leap forward, and I feel great this year. I feel happy right now.”

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