Casey Cunningham of Saddleback Valley Christian competes in the championship final of the 500-yard freestyle during Thursday's CIF-Southern Section Division 3 championships in Riverside.

Cunningham, Christensen finish as champions in Div. 3


RIVERSIDE Senior Casey Cunningham didn’t want to finish her high school swimming career without a fight. Junior Jacob Christensen just got started Thursday night.

Saddleback Valley Christian’s Cunningham and Valencia’s Christensen approached their challenges at the CIF-SS Division 3 Finals from different perspectives but each finished as champions at Riverside City College.

Cunningham, a veteran club and CIF swimmer bound for BYU, repeated as the 500-yard champion by rallying for a stunning tie with Nipomo’s Alayna Gocke with a time of 5 minutes, 1.21 seconds.

Cunningham trailed Gocke by about a body length most of the second half of the race but started to cut the deficit at the bell, which signals two laps left. The touch-finish erased a second-place finish for Cunningham in a flash.

“Well, it’s my last race, so I can’t let that happen,” she said. “My goal was to get first and maintain what I got last year. … The last 50, I was, ‘I can actually do this.’

“But I didn’t know it would be that close.”

Christensen didn’t start swimming until the start of his eighth-grade year with the ORCA club but continued his rapid improvement in capturing the 100 breaststroke in a school-record and lifetime-best 56.62. The time would have qualified for the Division 1 finals and easily made the automatic standard for the CIF State meet next week.

“It’s been a real joy,” Christensen said of his rise. “I have a lot of support from my parents, my family, friends and my coach.”

Christensen’s ascent started with a 1:30.51 in the 100-yard breaststroke in September 2012 with ORCA.

“That’s pretty darn rare,” ORCA coach Mark Tierney said of Christensen’s rapid improvement. “To become a CIF champion, and 56 is a pretty darn good time.”

Kennedy’s boys were the county’s highest placing team at 13th. Rodrigo Baca paced Kennedy with a narrow fourth-place touch in the 100 butterfly in 51.04. The senior finished about fourth-tenths short of defending his title.

“It’s been fun having him for all these years,” said Kennedy co-coach Eric Corona.

Kennedy junior Roseryn Empremsilapa racked up 26 points by placing eighth in the 200 individual medley and 500 free finals.

The Cypress boys 200 free relay clocked a school-record and state-consideration time of 1:29.57. The team of Sooho Choi, Brandon Nguyen, Albert Cortes and Dominick Ta earned a fifth-place finish.

Western’s Parker Stephenson received the rare opportunity that all alternates dream of. The junior took an empty Lane 9 in the consolation final of the 50 free and moved up one place to finish 17th with a 22.47.

The Empire League champion called his time “pretty good” considering he wasn’t “wearing a cap, a tech suit and didn’t stretch.”

Western coach Don Conner quipped, “We’ll take it.”

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