By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SRJC swimmer Alexandria Holland swims the butterfly during practice Monday in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)SRJC swimmer Alexandria Holland swims the butterfly during practice Monday in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Two podium finishes and a school record in one of California’s premier junior college conferences has Meghan O’Rourke primed for the state championships.

Santa Rosa teammate Alex Xu also took a conference title as one of the state’s top men going into the California Community College Athletic Association finals.

O’Rourke, from Montgomery, and Xu, out of Casa Grande, help lead another deep Bear Cubs contingent in Monterey Park. The meet runs today through Saturday with the women aiming for a top three spot and the men seeking a strong finish in a rebuilding year.

“Everybody’s peaking at the right time. Hopefully we’re going to do some big stuff at state this year,” O’Rourke said. “It’s pretty intense. There are a lot of fast swimmers.”

Swimming with strength and speed in the season’s culminating meets is the goal of training in and out of the water.

Qualifying a solid number of athletes for state, 20 in all, Santa Rosa looks to be in the hunt for both individual and relay titles.

“It’s a very competitive meet. We just want to show a solid outing,” Xu said.

A larger, talented women’s team gives Santa Rosa the depth to contend for a top three finish at state. Santa Rosa has six California junior college titles, the last in 2009.

That the Bear Cubs finished second to Diablo Valley in the Big 8 Conference meets reflects the level of competition Santa Rosa faces during the season.

Santa Rosa also takes on the best in large statewide competitions.

“The Big 8 is so deep it’s ridiculous, especially on the women’s side,” said Santa Rosa coach Jill McCormick.

“We’re looking forward to state. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to try for a podium finish.”

Returning All-Americans O’Rourke, Codie Cox from Maria Carrillo, and Kayla Strand from Chico, all qualified for three individual events. O’Rourke captured a conference title, setting a school record in the 1650 (mile) free to gain the state’s second seed.Big back-to-back meets demand strength and conditioning built up over the season and O’Rourke feels the results.

“I have built more endurance and muscle this year,” she said. “I’m able to stay stronger in the water and not feel as sore after races.”

Also seeded high going into the state meet is Alexandria Holland, last year’s state junior college women’s swimmer of the year.

Named the Big 8 Conference’s top women’s swimmer again, Holland, out of Maria Carrillo, defended all three of her titles from a year ago. Breaking her own conference and school records in the 100 Fly, she also won the 100 and 200 Individual Medleys. Holland is seeded second in the fly and the 100 IM and third in the 200 IM.

With a handful of top performing freshmen, the Santa Rosa women have their strongest team in several years.

First year swimmers qualifying for the state championships in multiple events include: Karissa DeRousseau (Maria Carrillo), Erin Sullivan (Montgomery), Allison Strauss (Cardinal Newman), Casey Murdoch (Santa Rosa) and Ariana Bates (Montgomery).

Leading the group is DeRousseau with three high seeds. She is third in both the 50 and 100 Breast, and fifth in the 200 IM.

Conference meets and finals prepare Santa Rosa for the always challenging state championships loaded with swimmers from Southern California’s top programs.

“The Big 8 is arguably the strongest conference in the state, giving us a great slate of dual meets, rivalries, and a very fast conference championship meet,” McCormick said. “We’re excited to be taking on the biggest teams in the state.”

While the Santa Rosa women were reloading, the men have been rebuilding this season. Santa Rosa finished fourth in conference. Yet after capturing the school’s first men’s title in 2012 following a third place the previous season, Santa Rosa still has high expectations.

“This year has been a huge transition,” Xu said. “Conference kind of gives everyone perspective, kind of a ballpark of what’s expected. We always look for excellence.”

The men’s captain, Xu, is seeded fourth in the 400 IM and fifth in the 200 IM. Andrew Hayes, from Livermore, is fifth in the 200 Back and sixth in the 200 IM.

Better nutrition and improved strength training have helped prepare the men to make their mark at the state meet, Xu said.

“The coaches know how to push our buttons to get the most out of us,” he said. “We are primed and ready to go.”