Hellgate wins 2

The Hellgate Knights cheer in the pool and raise the jug after winning their fifth-straight state swimming title. 

LINDSAY ROSSMILLER, 406mtsports.com

MISSOULA — Two points. 

In 2013, the Missoula Hellgate girls were just two points shy of winning their first state swimming title since 1988.

The Knights and coach Helen Houlihan haven't looked back since. 

"We had one year when we were really close, didn't quite win it but we were really close and we thought that the next year we probably would," Houlihan said.

And that's what happened. 

The Hellgate girls topped Bozeman by 89 points. 

The boys followed suit as well, winning their side by 53 points after finishing fifth at the state meet the year before. 

"There were a group of club kids that came in about two years before (2014)," Houlihan said. "Slowly we had a couple every year, both on the girls and the boys side. ... Then we had quite a few that came in at the same time. You add those together every year and all of a sudden, you've got six or seven kids that are going really fast."

Fast forward to 2018.

Last weekend, both the Hellgate boys and girls brought home their fifth-straight state titles. The boys beat Bozeman by 161 points — the widest margin since the streak began. The girls racked up 359 points and beat Bozeman by 147 points. The point total and the win margin were their second-highest since the streak began. 

"It's amazing. I can't really explain how good it feels," two-year team captain and two-event champion Matthew Fritz said. "Being able to be here for four years and win every single year, and being a senior, I won't be here again. Just being able to finish with another state title, it's icing on the cake. It's definitely the best thing I could have asked for in finishing this year off.

"It was definitely the best way to end an amazing streak for me. Being able to finish it that way, with a win, the fifth straight. It's pretty incredible."

Hellgate capped off this season like it has for five consecutive years now: with a Houlihan belly flop off a starting block and its tradition of "filling the jug."

The belly flop celebration isn't only Hellgate's as that's a storied tradition at many schools around the country. But the jug, that's as unique as the school's name itself. 

Houlihan said she came up with the jug idea herself and asked a parent to go out and buy a jug several years back. 

"I just felt that we needed something to give us a little bit of incentive to be really aggressive and to motivate the kids, so I came up with the concept of filling the jug," Houlihan said. "... It was just a tradition that we started from there."

Essentially, Hellgate takes the water from the state meet pool after they win and return it home. When the state meet rolls around the following year, the Knights take part in a "ritual" in taking water out of their pool and following up with another "ritual" before the state meet begins. 

Winning and filling that jug for one last time was Fritz's favorite memory as a Hellgate swimmer.

"Just being a senior team captain and just being able to know that I've been able to lead this team to two victories and been able to be there for them when they needed me," Fritz said. "We finished with a state record in the 200 free relay. I won both of my individual races. It was the last time and that's really the defining moment.


The run

Since 2014, Hellgate has set 28 state records and has recorded 63 first-place finishes. 

Currently, the Knights hold 14 of the 22 state records. That's 64 percent. 

But the overall dominance is something that's set in relatively recently. When the Hellgate boys won state in 2014, they did so without an individual Knight winning a race. Their only podium-topping performances came in the 200 medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay. 

The girls, on the other hand, won all three relays and had four individual race champions — Hanni Leach and Hailey Jacobson.  

Compare that to 2018: The Hellgate boys won all three relays and had five individual race wins. The girls won all three relays too and had four individual race wins. 

Hellgate's reign atop Class AA swimming is record-worthy.

What the Knights have accomplished — five straight state titles for both boys and girls – is something that hasn't been done in state history. 

At least, not simultaneously. 

"I don't think there's ever been a time where it's been both sides at the same time," Houlihan said. "That was a big accomplishment for us."

The Bozeman boys have won 17 titles, while Hellgate has won nine. Hellgate's total haul for boys is tied for third in state history. But the boys' streak is approaching state record territory. 

The longest state title win streak for a boys team, regardless of class, is owned by Class A's Billings Central Catholic. The Rams took home six consecutive titles from 2010 to 2015 before the Columbia Falls Wildcats edged them out in 2016. The Hellgate boys' run of five straight tied the Class AA record — Bozeman's 5-year run from 2003-07. 

The girls have a little more ground to make up.

Bozeman's all-time title haul on the girls' side is 13, while Hellgate sits at nine. The longest consecutive trophy sweep, regardless of class, is 10. Havre took home the title from 2000-09.

Sustaining the dominance

Winning five straight state titles isn't easy. None of the student athletes who started the streak are around anymore but Fritz has fond memories of swimming alongside them. 

In 2015 — Fritz's freshman year — he was on two state-winning relays alongside some of Hellgate's finest in Cale Berkoff and Brendan Campbell. Berkoff now swims for the University of Minnesota. Campbell retired from swimming due to chronic pain and now attends Yale. 

"They started this for us when they were here," Fritz said of the swimmers he's overlapped with who began the streak. "Just being able to swim with those guys and just continue that streak with them, it was an honor. It's definitely not an easy accomplishment. For them to be able to kick that off and start it for us, is definitely a huge accomplishment for them. It's a really good feeling to be able to continue that."

The pressure that mounted this season was high because of the legacy that Berkoff, Campbell, Leach, Jacobson & Co. began.

"They'd been handed a legacy that not very many teams have," Houlihan said. "When you have that many winning years in a row, there's pressure to continue that. They were handed a golden opportunity and they knew it. They knew the pressure was on and each one of those kids, it didn't matter if they were a freshman or a senior, stepped right up at the state meet and they swam great.

"They took that to heart. They took what had been handed to them as a gift and they continued to roll with it."

Not only is Hellgate's dominance of state-wide interest, it's among the most dominant runs in high school swimming across the country as of late. 

Only three other schools in the country have established similar dominance — or more — for both genders over that same time span, according to records found on high school association websites for all 50 states.

The most impressive streak is in Florida, where The Bolles School, a private preparatory school in Jacksonville, has cleaned house together since the early 1990s. The boys have won 30 straight state titles, while the girls have won 27 straight. 

In Arkansas, Bentonville High School's boys have won 13 straight state titles, while the girls have won four straight. A little closer to home, in Nevada, Boulder City High School's boys have won seven straight titles and the girls have won five. 

The future

Hellgate isn't done. 

Twenty-one of its 34 swimmers who made the scored final at the state meet return next year, including Katharine Berkoff and Finn Westenfelder. Berkoff broke two state records this year in her two individual events and Westenfelder stood atop the podium in one of his. 

But, as always, it won't be easy, since the state of Montana swimming is constantly getting better. 

Of the 22 events offered at state swimming, nine records were broken this year alone. 

"There were a lot of fast swims," Houlihan said. "The state of Montana is definitely getting faster overall. ... Every year we see that records are falling. That just shows the improvement overall. We see it here. When I look at the school records for instance, our school records, a lot of them are going down every year. The kids are focused. They're fired up."

Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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