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Originally published Monday, February 13, 2012 at 10:01 PM

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Women having success coaching high-school boys teams

Issaquah coach Laura Halter will be trying to win her first boys state championship in swimming, but she isn't alone. Many female coaches are having success with boys teams.

Special to The Seattle Times

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When the state swimming championships begin on Friday morning with the Class 3A preliminary heats, Mercer Island coach Chauntelle Johnson will be seeking her fourth consecutive title.

A couple of hours later, when the 4A prelims kick off, Issaquah coach Laura Halter may have a contingent in place to make a run at her first championship.

What is so special about these teams?

It's the boys state championships. And both title-hopeful teams are coached by women.

That's not unusual anymore in swimming, especially in Washington high schools. Of the 18 KingCo Conference 4A and 3A boys swim team coaches, 12 are female. Nine of 18 WesCo coaches in the sport also are women.

The favorites for the 3A team title this weekend, Mercer Island and Lakeside, both have women coaches.

Women coaching men is unusual in the grander scheme of athletics. Swimming is one of the few sports where it happens, in fact.

"I've never noticed, never even thought about it," said Kamiak coach Chris Erickson, one of WesCo's male swim coaches. "They're just coaches, you know. Maybe we're just a little more advanced in swimming."

Erickson's Knights are the defending 4A state champs and his team is again one of the favorites this weekend at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way. Kamiak will have 11 preliminary swims, including all three relays, plus the Northwest District diving champion in Sean Mulvihill.

Halter's Issaquah squad could challenge, though. The Eagles also have 11 swims on Day 1, including all three relays. Relays are important because point values are doubled.

"It's really about how many swims make the top 8," Halter said. "The team that wins is the team with three relays in the top 8. I don't know if anybody can do that this year."

In 3A, though, it appears to come down to Johnson's Islanders and Sally Rupert's Lakeside Lions, the Metro League champions. If either squad wins, it will mean a woman-coached boys team will have won the state title for the second consecutive season.

Mercer Island is the defending champ. Since taking over the program from previous coach Jeff Lowell, Johnson is 3-0 in her last four trips to the state meet — two with the Islanders' girls, one last year with the boys.

In 4A, the last woman coach to win a championship was Thomas Jefferson's Wendy Neely in 2004. Issaquah's Halter would like to be the next.

"The boys and I discussed it," said Halter, whose team was 11th a year ago. "We'd really, really like to make the top 5. It's doable."

To most high-school boys swimmers, coaching is coaching — whether it's by a male or female.

"When I was younger, my first coach for summer league was a girl," said Brian Ruggles, who will swim the 50- and 100-yard freestyles at state for Issaquah. "I've had a lot of coaches, and actually I can't think of many differences (between the men and women). Laura gets us working hard like any other coach."

The coaches themselves don't think about it much.

"After nine years (at Issaquah), I can say that all the men have been very welcoming when women come on," Halter said. "They treat us very equally. These coaches are some of the most professional people I've ever worked with in my life."

Halter admits she changes the way she coaches from girls to boys.

Girls, she says, are more emotional. With boys, she can be blunt in her directions.

"Girls take things personally," Halter said. "With the boys, you tell it like it is. That's the way they want to hear it."

While Halter's experience is in swimming, she believes her style would translate to other sports.

"If I had experience in another sport, I could coach boys in a complete team situation," Halter said.

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