OCEAN — The boys squad has been the stronger of the Croatan swimming teams over the past few years, and that looks to be the case again this season.

The Cougars have finished in the top five of the state for five consecutive seasons, and will try and vie for that mark again with such obstacles as moving up to 3A and losing some significant talent.

“I think the boys still have a chance to be top five at regionals,” said Michaela Worsinger as she enters her sixth year as coach.

The team will have its work cut out for it at the state meet, however, after a realignment process that factored in more than enrollment took the program from the 2A ranks for the first time in its 24-year history.

“Had we stayed 2A, I think we were strong enough to win regionals and do well at states,” Worsinger said. “3A will be tough. It is stacked. It’s going to be crazy in 3A.”

Croatan will be without the services of Will Barker, Matthew McCray and Patrick Reindl.

Barker graduated after putting together one of the best careers in county history with nine state championships. McCray, who has won a couple of state titles on relay teams, is concentrating on baseball, while Reindl is focusing on band.

“We lost some multi-sport athletes who are focusing on their primary sports and other things, so we are missing some leadership there,” Worsinger said. “We brought back some talent, and we have a lot of good freshmen and some good transfers, though.”

Ryan Simcic, a transfer from Virginia, is already around 22 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle and appears primed for a big year.

Nathan Michalowicz, Harrison Milano, Rylan Feimster, Luke Kahrimanovic and Aiden Pesko supply plenty of returning talent after helping the team finish fifth at the 2A state meet and second in the regional.

Freshmen Matej Roth and Paul Padgett have also showed promise in the preseason and first meet of the year.

“The boys have a really strong team,” Worsinger said. “It’s diverse, just really good at different events.”

The girls lost their top two swimmers in Teal Edholm and MJ Klaumann. Edholm transferred, while Klaumann is concentrating on volleyball.

Edholm had a standout regional performance with two runner-up spots in the 100 backstroke and 200 medley. In the conference championship meet, Klaumann ended up first in the 100 butterfly and placed second in the 50 freestyle.

Grace Meyer and Avah Beikirch are the top two returners.

They were part of a 200 medley relay that took third in the region and a 200 freestyle relay that placed fourth.

“They are both very strong swimmers,” Worsinger said. “I think the girls can place top 10 at regionals.”

Mackenzie Sampson is also back after three top-10 regional finishes.

And while this year looks to be another strong one for the teams, the future continues to look bright with nearly 40 percent of the 38-swimmer roster featuring freshmen.

“We’ve got a bunch of freshmen who are year-round swimmers,” Worsinger said. “They are super excited to be here, very passionate and are working harder than a lot of groups I’ve seen. They want to drop times and are always asking for feedback.”

Madison Bowen, a Junior Olympic swimmer, is among the newcomers expected to make a splash.

Both teams won back-to-back 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference championships but will have to deal with county rival West Carteret this season in the 3A Coastal Conference.

“The conference will be interesting,” Worsinger said. “The girls will have to fight a lot harder to win. Our boys and the West boys will be a really good meet. It should be tight between those two.”

Croatan and West will meet for the first time in the pool on Wednesday, Jan. 5 at New Bern.

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