Winter is upon us and the Friday night lights of football season have been turned off, which can only mean one thing for high school sports fans — it's swimming season.
And just like last year when Brighton swept the 5A boys and girls titles, there should be a distinct Bengal feel throughout the season.
"There's some really strong teams out there, and we're going to have to be at the top of our game if we want to repeat," Brighton coach Todd Etherington said. "It's not even close to a foregone conclusion, which is something that keeps our team motivated. We've had to battle it out in every meet this year, and I don't see that changing."
Headlining the list of Brighton's returning stars is Long Gutierrez, who set a state record in the 100 yard butterfly as a freshman last season. He also captured the state title in the 50-yard freestyle and he has his sights set even higher this season.
Gutierrez already has the fastest times in all eight individual events this season, and he'll be the anchor in Brighton's attempt to repeat as state champions.
"He's just an amazing young man," Etherington said of Gutierrez. "He's a kid who, when you ask him to do something, is going to go out there and do everything he can to get it done. It's not strictly a talent thing, though, he is extremely talented, but he actually gets in there and does the work.
"In this way he's a good example to the rest of the team."
Despite Gutierrez's personal brilliance, Brighton will need a team effort to defend its title. Greg Ballif, who won the 100-yard breaststroke last year, along with Kyle Spicer, Tanner Wiest and Trick Graf, also return to provide depth for the Bengals.
On the girls' side, Brighton returns each member of its title-wining 200 yard medley team — Kaitlyn Overstreet, Abby Alger, Amanda Barrett and Yasmin Farahani — who each happen to be solid in their individual events.
Barrett dominated the 500-yard freestyle last season, claiming the state title by nearly five seconds, and has already posted the fastest time of the season in that race and the 200-yard freestyle.
Led by Travis Norseth and Natalie Bennion, Skyline is poised to challenge both of Brighton's teams. Bennion took second in the 100-yard free last year, falling to her sister Angela, who graduated.
Two swimmers from Kearns — Sam Huff and Ciera Marsh — will be in the mix for individual titles. Huff has been Gutierrez's only competition in the 50- and 100-yard free, while Marsh is one of the most dominant female swimmer in the state.
She already looks like the favorite in the 50- and 100-yard free, and has also fared well in the 100-yard breaststroke and 200-yard individual medley.
"We've only seen Ciera once, but she swam very, very fast," Etherington said. "And Sam was remarkable against us. It took an amazing swim by Long to beat him in the 50-yard free, and it was really fun to watch."
In 4A, Mountain Crest has had a nice run of early-season success. The Mustangs lost star Jake Taylor, but Timmy Bates, who eked out victories in the 100-yard free and backstroke last year, is back, along with William Watts and Sean O'Very, who fared well as a freshman last season.
Tooele, led by Casey McEachern and Skyler Smith, is also a team to watch, while Braedon Hagemann is a versatile threat for Lehi. The Pioneers placed fourth last season.
Olympus, which took second place last year, and Mountain Crest are looking like the teams to beat for the 4A girls title this year.
Rachel Spencer won the 50-yard free and 100-yard backstroke, then anchored the Titans' title-winning 200-yard freestyle relay team last season. Meanwhile, Shaylee Howard won the 100-yard free as a freshman and has put up consistently good times this season.
For Mountain Crest, freshman Hailey Pabst and senior Meghan O'Very anchor a dangerous Mustang team. Pabst has posted 4A's fastest times of the season in the 50-, 100-, 200- and 500-yard free, while O'Very has unbeatable in the 100-yard breaststroke and butterfly and 200-yard IM.
Logan should also be in contention to defend its title. Nichole Sorensen and Jamie Hunsaker, who placed second and third in the 500-yard free last year (behind teammate Janessa Gammill) will return for their sophomore seasons, while freshman Megan Healy adds another strong swimmer to the Grizzlies' team.
Park City will have a chance at both the boys and girls 3A titles. The Miners return standouts Dusty Ragland, Zach Carfi and Hayden Peterson on the boys side, while Hailey Shand, Ali Murphey and Marissa Bell lead a balanced girls team.
Judge Memorial squeaked out an eight-point victory for the girls title last year and will be in the running again. Lydia Jones, who won the 200- and 500-yard free last season, along with freshman Amelie Wolfgramm, are the elite swimmers for the Bulldogs.
Another team to watch on the boys side is Desert Hills. Behind Jon Goettsche, Tim Senholtz and Brady Karratti, the Thunder will look to improve on last year's fifth-place finish. Desert Hills has dominated the relays so far this season and boasts improved team depth from last year.