It's easy to identify who the favorites will be at the Section VI boys swimming championships in mid-February.
Just look at the list of the year's best times in Western New York. There are swimmers from Orchard Park, Hamburg and Williamsville East, over and over again. Their relay teams dominate the competition. "The Big Three" are clearly the teams to watch as the postseason approaches.
The coaches of those teams have plenty in common. They say their swimmers are doing better than expected in terms of improvement in their times.
"Right now, our main guys who are contributing are way ahead," Hamburg coach Andy Godios said.
"I'm very happy with this group," Orchard Park coach Art Aungst said.
"We're ahead of schedule - very much so," Williamsville East coach Mike Doefler added.
A swimming tradition is helpful, too. There's nothing like the inspiration of a few banners from past championships on the pool wall to swim that extra lap.
"This is my 11th season, and the last three years we've really come around," Godios said. "We're 29-1 over that span; the only loss is to Orchard Park."
"I've only been here since 1981," Aungst said a laugh. "We had a very strong program when I got here. I would advise any young coach who is just starting out to find a good program for their first job."
While all of the squads have swimmers who participate in the sport year-round through club teams, the number isn't as high as one might think.
"I have eight or nine, and one of the strengths of the program is that we have guys who play other sports," Aungst said. "It makes it more interesting. Alec Hoch was a hockey player forever.
"Last year at the state meet, we had a volleyball player, a hockey player, a soccer player. It's really nice to have some guys who are innately athletic."
Godios also encourages his swimmers to try other sports. He probably puts in a good word for track and football, since he coaches there in his "offseasons."
Hamburg has a veteran team with many returnees from a 2016 squad that sent eight swimmers to the state meet. The most eye-opening performance so far came from Luke Kennedy. He swam the 100 breaststroke in 57.85 , leaving everyone else in WNY in his wake.
"That's Luke's main event; he's ranked No. 1 in the breaststroke," Godios said. "He's very close to qualifying for All-American status. He's more than two seconds ahead of anyone else in the area."
Michael Maurer has posted the best time in the section in the 200 individual medley and the 100 backstroke, and he's not far behind in the 200 freestyle. Maurer has set school records along the way.
"He's our most well-rounded swimmer, between the IM and the back," Godios said. "He's part of the relays, too."
The Bulldogs' 200 medley relay team lost a couple of swimmers to graduation from last year's sectional champion, but Liam O'Connell and Christian Steiner have joined Kennedy and Maurer on that powerful unit.
"We're two-tenths of a second behind Williamsville East right now, but we'll make the states," Godios said.
Steiner, by the way, is ranked in the top 10 in WNY in three events.
At Orchard Park, Alec Hoch is the Quakers' lone individual swimmer to lead WNY in an event. He has a 21.21 to his credit in the 50 freestyle.
"Alec is No. 1, although he has a little brother (Trevor) nipping at his heels," Aungst said. "Alec's also going fast in the 100 free," where he is just behind the time of Olean's Seth Ferrand.
The Quakers have plenty of depth behind Hoch.
"Riley McLaughlin is a really versatile freestyler," Aungst said. "We're looking for him to qualify for the states in the 200 free. Drew Deren has got to be just a little bit faster to make it in the 100 fly. He's a dynamite competitor, and he's great in the relay in big meets. Josh and Joe Blake swim lots of events. We also have Sean Duffy, who was all-division as a volleyball player."
It's easy to wonder how Aungst figures out who swims where in dual meets or postseason championships. But the Quakers coach has a tool for such decisions: a stopwatch.
"You do what the clock says," he said. "It's not like football. You don't have to react to what anyone else is doing, and you don't have to make changes on the fly. It's an awful lot easier.
"The fact that everyone wants to swim on the relays is a great problem, but it's also a curse. Some guys work hard, but they aren't a part of it. That's the way it is."
Williamsville East's most dominant team member might be its No. 1 diver. Tim Finley has been to the last three state championships, and the Flames standout picked up a win over the weekend at the Lockport Invitational Diving Meet. No one has come close to Finley's scores during the regular season.
As for the swimmers, a relay team and three individuals have posted state qualifying times.
"Our medley team of Michael Clough, Will Eaton, Bryan Hong and Dylan Kim qualified in 1:40.54." Doefler said. "Michael is set in the 100 fly in 53.72. Bryan Hong recently did 53.76 in the 100 fly. Will Eaton has qualified in the 100 breaststroke."
All three teams have glittering records in dual meets, and are likely to do well in team competition when the postseason arrives. But the coaches agree: having swimmers on Long Island for the state championship is the primary goal.
"Dual meets are great, and so are division championships," Doefler said. "But the goal is to get as many as possible in the state meet."
"The team goals are usually compatible with the personal goals," Aungst said. "Individuals who go fast make the team better."