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The Thomas Jefferson High boys swim team climbed out of the pool at last Friday’s dual meet against South Lakes with a familiar feeling of satisfaction, one backed by the 211-94 score line that eventually fell in their favor. The girls’ side didn’t feel quite as confident — they fell short 171-144 after all the numbers were added up.

Either way, it was another meet in which the Colonials had held their own against traditional Liberty District competition. And it was another meet in which they heard this friendly shout emanate from the South Lakes huddle nearby: “We’ll miss you at Conferences!”

It would be easy to forgive the Jefferson boys for feeling a little miffed about that chant, a reminder that VHSL reclassification has them moving down to Division 5A even as they remain undefeated this season against Division 6A competition. All of Jefferson’s sports moved last fall from Conference 6 (the former Liberty District) to Conference 13, where they now compete in the postseason against schools of like size (mostly members of the former National District). Several of Jefferson’s teams, including the swim team, have eased into the transition by continuing to play regular season contests against old Liberty District rivals. Jefferson Director of Student Activities Rusty Hodges said decisions on the shape of future schedules will come at the end of the school year, when officials will likely mandate regular season schedules against Conference 13 teams.

Jefferson swimmers have every right to feel apathetic about the blowouts that likely await them, but that’s not the attitude they’re adopting. Instead, the Colonials are excited to embrace cautious optimism in going after their first boys state championship since 2002 and their first girls state title since 2004.

“When it comes time for states, even though we won’t be in the same pool [as the 6A teams], we’re going to be setting up our relays, setting up our events as if we’re swimming against 6A teams,” senior captain Miles Oakley said. “It’s been a really long time since we’ve won. We’re really motivated for 5A states. We’re definitely not looking past any teams.”

The boys’ move down to 5A coincides with one of their strongest teams in recent years. A deep pool of talent led by junior standout Andrew Seliskar — the country’s No. 1-ranked swimmer in his age group — has carried the Colonials to a 5-0 start that featured a 170-145 win against Madison, the defending region champions. Madison was the last team to take down Jefferson in a dual meet, a feat they accomplished on Dec. 17, 2011.

Jefferson’s win against Madison pairs with victories over McLean and South Lakes, former Liberty District rivals who now dwell in Conference 6 of Division 6A. The same goes for Fairfax and Langley, the two remaining opponents on their schedule.

Swim coach Ian Handerhan views his relay teams this year as on par with the ones at defending state champion Robinson. He’s not sure whether his group would have held up with the likes of Robinson at states this year, but he has a feeling they might have bettered last year’s fourth-place finish.

“We were at a level where I don’t think we necessarily would have won 6A, but we would have been right there,” said Handerhan, now in his third year coaching the team. “So at the top level there’s some disappointment that we’re not in the pool with Robinson, Oakton and Madison. But at the same time we’re going to have a lot of kids that will get to swim at states. No matter where you win it, it’s a state championship. They’ll be excited. There’s no disappointment in winning a state championship no matter where it is.”

Jefferson’s strength this year comes not just from studs like Seliskar, but from a deep lineup that can get the job done in every event.

“We’ve talked about when we win, we want to win with depth,” Oakley said. “We’ve got some kids that we know are going to have great individual swims, but when it comes down to Lane 8, Lane 6, Lane 4, we’re trying to move those outside lanes up from seventh place to fifth place. That’s where the points come from, and that’s where we’ve had our success so far. We want to win as a team so that we can score our best in later meets.”

Handerhan initially worried that some of his kids wouldn’t get psyched about his team the way they used to, since moving down to lesser competition compounds the problem of high school swimming generally taking a back seat to club swimming. He’s been pleasantly surprised, though, to find that he never really has to push his swimmers to show up to dual meets. They still conduct spirit days every Friday, strengthening a lively bond that has a summer-league feel.

Among those needing no extra push is Seliskar, who relishes the looser vibe he feels at high school meets in between national ones. Seliskar, who will have swum in five of the seven dual meets by season’s end, convinced his dad last year to let him swim in the medley relay, 200 freestyle and 200 IM of a Friday night high school meet even though he had to compete in the Tom Dolan Invitational the next morning.

“The high school meet, this is an environment that a lot of other kids don’t have,” said Seliskar, who is considering Cal and Stanford among other college programs. “Some of my friends on the national junior team swim competitively year round, but they never have the chance to swim for their school. I think there’s a whole other level of atmosphere when you swim here. You’ve got everyone you see everyday at school watching you. So even if you’re not as physically tapered or shaved down or anything like that, that adrenaline rush is still going to be there no matter what you do.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com