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Lions start to hit their stride with Coach Orr at the helm, stars shaving off time

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Senior Olive Owens is getting near the end of a successful career as a leader on the St. Helens High girls swim team.

A top-three finish at the Northwest Oregon Conference championships would signify much more than a step or two up the podium for the St. Helens boys and girls swimming teams. It would represent stability and an enhanced stature in a district the Lions want to one day rule.

St. Helens, which placed fourth the past two years, has steadied under coach Chelsie Orr's guidance on both sides of the ledger this season. Participation numbers are way up, the Lions' leadership is strong and the talent level can compete with the elites.

The NWOC meet at Parkrose High begins with prelims on Friday, Feb. 8 and ends with the finals on Saturday, Feb. 9. Finishing in the top three "would show we're not just floating out there, that we have a strong program and we're just getting better and better each year," Orr said. "That consistency that the team is starting to get is helping the program."

St. Helens once had one of the smallest teams in the conference, with just 30 swimmers. That was half the size of Wilsonville's program.

In order to compete with the likes of the Wildcats and La Salle Prep, the Lions needed more able-bodied athletes. So, under Orr and assistant Austin Sharp, St. Helens nominated its captains at the end of last season and essentially enlisted them to recruit the hallways.

Posters promoting the sport were put up all over campus. Word of mouth helped spread Orr's message of positivity, sportsmanship and enjoyment of a sport that can be tough.

By the time the season rolled around, St. Helens sported 22 new swimmers, some of whom had never swum before, to go with 18 returners.

"We try to make it fun and not just about hard work," Orr said. "We try to make it a program that they want to be a part of, because it's so new to so many people. I tell our kids what the expectations are in terms of how we treat the other team: shaking hands after races, staying in the water until the last person is done swimming, just common courtesy things that you don't always see. I tell them: 'This is who we are,' but in a positive way. That can ripple through our team and hopefully other teams."

Senior Olive Owens qualified for the Class 5A meet and broke the school record in the 100-yard freestyle as a junior.

"She's kind of the heart of the girls' team," Orr said. "We're really going to miss her when she graduates because she's really fast and has been really successful."

Freshmen Molly Wheeldon is a star freestyler who can swim in any event and almost beat Owens head-to-head at St. Helens' Jan. 24 dual meet with Parkrose.

"(Sharp) likes to call her 'The Next Olive Owens,'" Orr said with a laugh. "She's only a freshman, so she has a long way to go to really build on her technique, endurance, things like that."

Junior Maggie Wheeldon, Molly's sister, has "worked really hard" this season as the Lions' main backstroker and hopes to be a captain.

"The two of them have great work ethics and really positive outlooks," Orr said. "They listen to correction and work hard to be their best."

St. Helens sophomores Ryan Maher broke a team record in the 100 butterfly, and his twin, Jake Maher, shattered the record in the 100 breaststroke. The Mahers are club swimmers with extensive backgrounds in the sport. Each is a 5A meet hopeful who will be in the district title chase, but Orr said neither sees himself as a superstar above the team.

"They have great attitudes," Orr said. "They're really positive and hardworking. They're always at practice, and they're coachable. That makes a big difference in their success. These two are different. They're very nice kids, and they don't let their success get to their heads. It drives them to be more successful."

The 11-member boys team also relies on sophomore Nick Brooks, who swims the backstroke.

"He's really coming about in his speed and success," Orr said. "I see the next couple of years being really successful for him as well."

Junior Cooper Montgomery swims the 200 and 500 freestyle as well as the breaststroke.

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