LECANTO — It took three years for the Gulf Coast 8 conference championship swim meet to occur, but for Crystal River it proved worth the wait.

Teams from seven GC8 schools (Central High didn’t field a team this year) converged on the Citrus Memorial Health Foundation YMCA on Saturday, but none could outperform the Pirates.

Scheduling conflicts prevented a conference meet from taking place the first two years of the GC8’s existence, so both the Crystal River boys and girls became the conference’s inaugural swimming champions.

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"It’s fantastic. For the boys and the girls to just come together as a team, it’s exciting for them, and the first-ever one in the conference," Crystal River coach Chuck Gatton said. "Everybody stepped up for everybody else and it’s a great feeling for them. Good motivation."

The most drama came on the girls’ side, where the Pirates held just a six-point lead heading in the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay.

Molly Maguire, Gabriella Witkowich, Olivia Szylkowski and Baylie Wells combined to take first place with a 4:18.82 clocking, allowing Crystal River to pull away in the team standings with a 123 compared to 109 by Springstead and 99 by Lecanto.

Szylkowski had a big day for the Pirates, the sophomore placing first in the 200 free (2:12.95) and 100 fly (1:07.32). She also joined Wells, Maguire and Haley Henry to capture the 200-medley relay (2:09.71).

"It’s really exciting that we’re able to pull all this off. We had one of our swimmers missing, but we’re still strong enough that we’re able to pull it off," Szylkowski said. "It’s a happy feeling to know that we’re the first winner of the conference.

"… Some of my times, I did better than I did on Thursday (against Lecanto). But I could have done better."

Maguire added a win in the 200 IM (2:42.91) and Henry was first in the 500 free (6:28.28).

Lecanto was running in second until the 400 free. Junior Grace Burkholder, a state qualifier last year, earned conference crowns in the 50 free (25.43) and the 100 backstroke (1:06.89).

She also got one in the 200-free relay, along with Haileigh Swisher, Blakely Messer and Lorilei Mohammadbhoy (1:57.69).

"I definitely think I can get better for the rest of the season, but so far I’m feeling OK," Burkholder said. "It’s really exciting actually. I was really excited for previous years but then it didn’t happen. This year is really exciting. I’m really proud of my teammates, too.

"… It’s showing me where I am, how fast I can go. But I don’t think this is the best I can get yet. But it’s definitely showing me placement-wise where I think I can go."

The Crystal River boys held a more comfortable advantage as the meet wound down, ending up at 134, well ahead of Lecanto in second at 92.

Junior Garrett Hickman was an individual conference champ for the Pirates in the 200 IM, swimming a 2:21.41 to hold off Lecanto’s Noah Ambrose (2:25.87).

"I think my performance was pretty close to what I normally do. It was a little bit off since I had a meet two days ago," Hickman said. "I feel like I could have done a little bit better, but that’s why I train.

"To win a conference event, it’s a really great experience. Because you put all this effort into training and working, and you get to see all these other people who have also put a lot of effort into training and working. Everyone showing off their skills, everyone doing their very best, it’s just something that’s great to see."

Hickman and Ambrose also competed together in the 100 fly, with Ambrose taking third (1:03.02) and Hickman fourth (1:04.10), while Citrus junior Drew Jenkins came in first (57.98).

"We absolutely push each other every event," Hickman said. "I know I personally swim faster when I’m against people who are really close to my time, because we just want to get that little bit faster to beat each other. So it’s a lot of very friendly competition and it’s fantastic to have."

Hickman was part of the first-place 200-medley relay, along with Landon Vincent, Kenneth Witkowich and Dean Carey. The Pirates didn’t have any other first-place finishes, but rather showed off some depth in collecting the team trophy.

"Our second and third swimmers stepping up and scoring points, moving up in the top seven, because that’s what did it, scoring points," Gatton said. "Our top swimmers were going to do what they were going to do, but stepping up down at the bottom, it was great. That was big, that was it. Full team effort today."

Lecanto freshman Mateo Valach added to a stellar rookie campaign with a victory in the 200 free (2:01.87), while Josh Ambrose was first in the 100 free (52.38) and 100 back (1:01.46). Those two along with Tyler Gonzalez and Noah Ambrose combined for a first-place 3:45.88 in the 400 free.

Jenkins, another state qualifier from 2020, added a conference title in the 100 breaststroke (1:07.28) to his triumph in the 100 fly.

"Today was pretty mediocre, but that wasn’t what mattered today. It was to have a good time with the team and get ready for districts," Jenkins said. "They’re (times) definitely getting faster as I go through the season. Meets like this raise the competition, which makes me go faster. They should definitely be where I need them to be by districts."

At the start of the season Jenkins came down with COVID-19, forcing him to miss time, and admits it has impacted his progression.

"That was a big thorn in my side," Jenkins said. "I couldn’t do the whole first meet and I was out of the pool for like two weeks. COVID really drains you."

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Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, chris.bernhardt@chronicleonline.com or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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