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With a roster loaded with talent, the Santa Rosa Junior College women’s swim team is not afraid of switching things up a little — even in the final stretch of the season.

The Bear Cubs are heading into the Big 8 Championship meet this week with swimmers playing a little out of position. And they are doing it on purpose.

Take, for instance, sophomore Hailey Vance.

Vance, who prepped at Redwood Academy in Ukiah, is the top seed in the conference in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke and for most of the season had also competed in the 50-yard freestyle. But the Bear Cubs were strong in the 50-yard free and thinner in the 500-yard race.

So less than two weeks ago, coach Jill McCormick turned to her veteran co-captain, Vance.

“We moved Hailey from the 50 free to the 500 free on a whim,” she said. “Her fitness is ridiculous. The way she trains, we knew she would be good.”

Vance doesn’t sound like she was quite as sure as her coach.

“The 500 was never my race. Never,” she said. “In the 50, it takes less than 30 seconds. I only have to take one breath in the 50.”

The 500 is a different beast altogether. But McCormick needed her to give it a go.

“That’s where she needed me,” Vance said.

When I asked Vance if she had a race strategy for such an unfamiliar distance, she started to chuckle.

“My race strategy was basically race a 50 and hold it,” she said. “I didn’t have much of a race strategy.”

Didn’t matter. She won.

“When I finished I was like, ‘This is awful. I am never doing this again,’” she said.

Except that with her time, she’ll race the 500 again at the Big 8 meet, which runs Thursday through Saturday at American River College in Sacramento.

Annika Erickson can sympathize. The sophomore co-captain with Vance was a freestyler and butterfly specialist — until she wasn’t.

Erickson, who swam at New Tech High in Napa, tried the backstroke at the American River College sprint meet in Sacramento on April 6. It’s a non-scoring meet, so why not dabble? And yet, why dabble when you have the talent to kill it?

After a “pretty decent” showing that Friday, McCormick encouraged Erickson to go for it the next day at the Chabot Invitational. She did — and she beat the state meet qualifying time.

“Turns out I’m good at backstroke,” she said. “I’ve been swimming for about 14 years and I’ve done a maximum of 200 yards of backstroke in my career.

“It was a bit shocking. It was also comedic,” she said. “I was like, ‘How do I do a backstroke start?’ I just winged it.”

But it’s not like the Bear Cubs are scrambling to fill holes in their roster. One gets the feeling it’s more like situating their weapons in the right spots.

One also gets the feeling it’s part of the game that McCormick likes.

“It’s a puzzle. It’s really tricky,” McCormick said of the evolving race-entry strategy. “There are so many moving parts to a three-day meet.

“Our key people who are ranked high need to take care of business and finish high,” she said.

And key people on the women’s side include both Vance and Erickson. Vance is seeded second in the 500-yard freestyle and first in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke. Erickson is ranked first in the 100-yard butterfly and second in both the 100-yard backstroke and freestyle.

Sophomore Taylor Sargis, last year’s Big 8 Swimmer of the Year, is ranked No. 1 in the conference in the 200-yard medley, the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke.

“She’s very experienced,” McCormick said of the Santa Rosa High grad. “She is just a ferocious competitor.”

McCormick said she needs a big weekend of personal bests from the freshman trio of Mary Khattar (Montgomery), Molly Davis (Technology) and Alex Langley (Summerfield Waldorf).

“They are key,” she said.

On the men’s side, the Bear Cubs are looking for strong outings from freshmen Mark Sidorenko, from Kazakhstan, who is seeded first in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard freestyle. Jack McCormick, who swam for Piner, is seeded second in the 50-yard free and fourth in both the 100-yard butterfly and freestyle.

Julian Schiano DiCola, from Novato High, is ranked fourth in the 1,650- and 200-yard freestyle and fifth in the 500-yard free while Nate English, another Santa Rosa grad, is seeded fourth in the 400-yard individual medley, seventh in the 200-yard medley and 11th in the 200-yard breaststroke.

On a team of only three returning sophomores and 14 freshmen, Sidorenko is the only one to have posted state qualifying times this season.

McCormick said she is looking for the men to post some PRs while getting as many into the May 3-5 state meet as possible.

The women, though, can fight for a team title. Sierra College in Rocklin is the team to beat, but the Bear Cubs have the roster to be in the mix, McCormick said.

“It’s really hard to win the Big 8 Conference. It’s definitely the most competitive conference in the state,” she said.

And there is clearly motivation. Last year, Sierra beat Santa Rosa out of the Big 8 Conference title and then topped them at the state meet.

“They are hungry for it,” McCormick said of her sophomores.

And after that, she sees her team in play to make a run at state.

“You never know,” she said. “I definitely wouldn’t say we are the favorites to win state this year, but I’d say we are up in it, fighting for a podium spot.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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