WALLA WALLA - Katharine Curles is excited.
The new Wa-Hi swim coach has been preparing her Blue Devils girls team for its first competition for several weeks, and Curles gets to see that preparation in action Saturday when the squad heads to Prosser for the Eastern Washington Jamboree.
"We have a lot of potential," Curles said. "I'm really impressed with our returners and how welcoming they are.
"We have 34 girls in the water - almost twice as many as last year, and more than half are new swimmers."
Curles isn't a new face around Wa-Hi's swim teams, though. After swimming for, and then graduating from Whitman in 2007 with a psychology degree with a minor in sports studies, Curles added assistant swim coach under longtime Blue Devil coach Brad Daly in 2008-09 to her responsibilities as an assistant coach with the Missionaries.
"I've coached a fair amount of the swimmers," she said of this year's Blue Devils. "After a year away, it's good to come back and see how they've progressed."
Curles spent a year in Guatemala between stints with Wa-Hi, teaching English on a volunteer basis. She's been back in Walla Walla three weeks, and also works as an advisor to student activities at Whitman.
She credits Daly's coaching and recruitment for this season's large turnout.
"We've got a good group coming to high-school age, which is really exciting," Curles said.
She acknowledges the loss of last year's team leaders in Tori Jones, Jessica Hutton and Bailey Ruff to graduation, but points to sophomore Max Timm-Ballard and juniors Abby Crowley and Cheyenne Schoen, as well as senior captains Andrea Hamada and Anna Reid, as this season's leaders.
"They're probably going to be leading us in points, as well as a bunch of returners who are going to fill up second, third, fourth and fifth spots," Curles said.
"I see this year as really developing the team," she said. "This is a year of really building our program and getting younger swimmers really excited and knowledgeable about swimming. So I'm excited to see individual improvements and I think we're going to have a lot of really great surprises."
After a few more days of practice, Curles was even more excited about the Blue Devils' prospects.
"Overall for this season, I'm expectant of - and excited for - all the time drops that I know will come," she said in an email. "We have a group of 20 girls who are new to our program - some of them have swum summer league, some have no competitive swimming background at all, but all have been working hard these past two weeks and are on their ways to great seasons. I'm sure we'll be having lots of great swims to talk about coming from them in the upcoming meets.
"From the returners, we appear to have a really well-rounded lineup," she said. "Elli Rassbach is overcoming an ankle injury right now, working really hard on her stroke and body position in the water while giving her legs a break. Once we get her going, she's going to be a great point contender for us in addition to Abby, Cheyenne and Max.
"Rounding out our returning squad, we have a strong field in the breast stroke, including Courtney Griggs, Katelyn Elmenhurst, Miranda Ruff and Natalie Fink. Cheyenne, Anna Reid and Megan Evans all have really strong butterfly, and Andrea Hamada will be joining Max and Abby in the backstroke. Jordan Barnett and Megan will be two of our anchors for the 500 Freestyle."
One advantage for Wa-Hi this season will be hosting three Big Nine meets at Whitman's Harvey Pool.
"The familiarity of that pool will be good for our swimmers," Curles said.
"The team is all undefined potential," she said. "I think we can move people around a lot and see what will be the strongest combination of events.
"I'm excited for the foundation we'll be laying for the future of the program."