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Casey Christie / The Californian

Bakersfield High School swim team member Aaron Blazer, center, and teammates practice at the McMurtrey Aquatic Center Thursday for an upcoming meet.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Bakersfield High School swimmers practice Thursday at the McMurtrey Aquatic Center for an upcoming swim meet.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Bakersfield High School swimmer Aaron Blazer puts in some practice laps at the McMurtrey Aquatic Center Thursday afternoon with his swim team.

On a recent cool, overcast day, Marc Urmston paced up and down McMurtrey Aquatic Center to coax reluctant swim team members into the water to practice.

"It's warmer in there than it is out here," the coach of the Liberty High School swim team barked at a cluster of holdouts huddled together under towels. "Come on, we've got the whole pool to ourselves today! Golden Valley and West both have meets!"

That's a rare luxury these days.

Interest in swimming and diving is exploding in Kern County even as the ability to serve students in those sports is declining.

There are 1,000 students competing in water sports in the Kern High School District, earning it the third highest participation rate of any sport except for football (2,400) and track (1,300), according to Stan Greene, KHSD's director of school support services.

But there aren't enough pools in the area to accommodate them, and far from adding space to keep pace with growing demand, the district is actually losing space.

KHSD has had to overhaul practices and meets for its swimming and diving teams, hoping to save money and make more efficient use of limited swimming pools.

The new system was implemented for the first time this year. Swim season began in February and runs through May.

The district is using eight swimming pools this year instead of nine, having cut ties with Cal State Bakersfield. Prior to this year, the district had leased a pool from CSUB for 25 years.

University spokeswoman Irma Cervantes said it was a schedule conflict, not cost, that led to the split. After CSUB class times were moved, the hours when CSUB athletes needed access to the university's pool also changed, inadvertently displacing the high school students.

KHSD is making do by having some leagues compete in so-called tri-meets pitting three schools against one another instead of two. Swimmers in the Southwest Yosemite League successfully lobbied for exclusion from the new structure because its teams are bigger than those of schools in the other leagues.

The restructuring comes as participation in water sports is growing.

East Bakersfield High's swim team had 14 members six years ago. Today it has 71, and the story is the same at schools across the county, said East Bakersfield Swim Coach Carey Jue.

"For some reason, swimming is really on the upswing," he said.

KHSD doesn't have any swimming pools of its own. It rents facilities from the city of Bakersfield, North Bakersfield Recreation and Parks and Bakersfield College. Private Catholic school Garces Memorial High School, which opened a new pool three years ago, hosts meets when it competes with KHSD schools.

Although it's still early, the new KHSD structure is already paying dividends, Greene said.

There was a shortage of officials, anyway, and now the district is paying for fewer pools and making better use of pools that were underutilized, he said.

Pool leases are negotiated in the fall, so the new structure saved KHSD $25,000 to $30,000 last year and is expected to save even more going forward -- enough over two years to pay for two teachers' salaries, Greene said.

"Over the past five years, the KHSD budget has been cut by over 75 million dollars," he said. "Anything we can do to keep teachers helps."

Athletes, parents and coaches say they understand the district has to do what it can to save money, but there are some downsides.

Tri-meets are fine at pools that have at least nine lanes, BHS Coach Jue said. Then, you can race three swimmers from each school simultaneously.

But when there are fewer lanes, competing with two other schools drags out the length of the meet, Jue said.

He envies school districts that own their own pools, or at least own them jointly with municipalities. In such cases, schools use the pool during the school year and city park systems use them in the summer.

"I don't know why we never did that," Jue said. "Bakersfield grew and never kept up with the pool building."

The KHSD school board has informally looked into building a pool, but ultimately dismissed the idea because the cost of construction and maintenance was prohibitive.

Garces declined to say how much it cost to build its pool, but it was "a heck of an endeavor by some very dedicated people to get it done," said President John Fanucchi.

Garces wanted its own facility because there wasn't adequate capacity for the number of children participating in water sports in and around Bakersfield, said Bill Potter, the school's facility and aquatics director.

Garces has 80 swimmers and 10 divers competing in the spring, and in the fall 50 students play on the county's only water polo team, Potter said. Accounting for some overlap, that's more than 100 athletes on a campus of about 600.

"It's our most popular sport on campus right now," Potter said. "With all the other schools, it was tough to find a place to swim at good times. Those pools were being used from 6 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night."

Liberty Coach Urmston said he misses being able to practice and compete at CSUB.

"It's closer to home, and that was our home pool, so we've lost our home field advantage at meets," he said.

At the same time, Urmston conceded that the new structure evens the field (waters?) for teams that previously had to go up against teams with twice as many members.

Even Jue grudgingly admits it "helps the competition."

At a dive meet Thursday between Bakersfield High, East Bakersfield High and Liberty High, Lauren Clarksean, 16, was feeling the pinch but muddling through.

"There are a lot of kids diving at one time, so there's very little practice time," Clarksean said. "But I honestly don't see a problem with it."

Fellow BHS diver Quentin Scott, 17, wasn't flustered, either.

"It definitely takes a lot of board time, but during the dive meets there's more competition, and more competition is always fun," he said.

Lauren's mother worries that coaches may be too swamped to offer as much individual attention as they'd like.

"That's an issue for kids who are hoping to compete in college, with colleges being so competitive," said Stacy Clarksean, 47.

Parent Catherine Calantas, 38, has a daughter who swims for BHS and a son who dives. She lamented that meets are a lot busier now.

"It's a little harder to keep track of my child, a little bit more hectic," Calantas said.

But if the changes make it possible to hang onto a few more teachers, "I'm all for it," she added.

Jue figures better this than eliminate swimming and diving all together.

"It's not the greatest thing, what we're doing now, but we all have to sacrifice," he said.