Big Finish expected at PIAA Swimming Championships

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It was a performance that would have sent most any high school swimmer into euphoria -- easily recording a record time while shattering the competition in a sport usually filled with exciting finishes.

Then again, Leah Smith is far from your average high school swimmer.

Upon breaking her WPIAL record by two seconds with a time of 4:39.78 in the 500-yard freestyle at the Class AAA championships last Friday, only one thing was on Smith's mind -- how she could have done better.

"I put a lot of expectations on myself for this meet, which I probably shouldn't have because I only got two days of rest," she said. "The time I wanted to go was 4:34."

Returning to swim this year for her high school, Oakland Catholic, the Mt. Lebanon native won with ease in the two events she swam at the WPIAL meet last week and will look to continue that momentum into the PIAA meet next week at Bucknell University.

For Smith, a senior who will swim collegiately at Virginia, the meet will be her last one in high school, the end of what has become a decorated career.

After setting PIAA records in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle her sophomore year, Smith did not swim her junior season for Oakland Catholic, opting instead to compete in meets around the country and world.

It was a trek that took her as far as Berlin and Moscow and thrust her upon as big of a stage as the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., where she finished 12th in the 800-meter freestyle and 14th in the 400-meter freestyle. The top two finishers in each event qualified for the Olympics.

Now, back at Oakland Catholic, Smith has continued the dominant performances that she left behind for a year. At the WPIAL meet last week, she finished 22 seconds ahead of the second-place competitor in the 500 freestyle with a time that would have placed her fourth among the boys. In the 200 freestyle, she broke her WPIAL record by two seconds and finished six seconds ahead of the next-closest swimmer.

As for the state meet? Smith has her eyes set on a much larger prize -- the national record in the 500 freestyle, a time of 4:31.38 set by Katie Ledecky of Stone Ride High School in Bethesda, Md. Smith said her best time in the event is about 4:36, but she feels she can do much better than that at states.

"I want to see how close I can get to that," Smith said of the national record. "If I'm 4:33 or under, I'll be happy."

Smith's pursuit of history is not the only local storyline as WPIAL teams head east for the PIAA meet. Fresh off winning the WPIAL meet on both the boys and girls side, North Allegheny will attempt to replicate the feat against the state's best teams and send coach Kirk "Corky" Semler into retirement in the most ideal way imaginable.

The Tigers' girls team is coming off a dominant showing at the WPIAL meet, as it defeated second-place Oakland Catholic by 160 points (417-257). Of the 12 girls events at the meet, a North Allegheny individual or relay team won six, including each of the three relay events.

Though it did not come in as lopsided of fashion, the boys team was able to win by a comfortable margin as well, finishing 57.5 points ahead of its nearest challenger (Upper St. Clair).

North Allegheny has not won a PIAA girls swimming title since 1997, with the boys capturing the state's top prize as recently as 2010, but Semler has a feeling there's something remarkable about his team this year.

"I think this being my last team alone makes it special, but this group has a camaraderie, a work ethic and a sense of class that I'm not sure I've ever had with a boys and girls team," Semler said. "They're the total package."


Craig Meyer: and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer.


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