Just out of high school herself, Shannon Orcutt didn’t know it at the time, but she was looking at the future of her swimming program at Centennial High School in the mid-1990s.
One of the girls Orcutt taught to swim was Tess Simpson.
Simpson’s mother, Kathy, remembered that as high school neared for Tess and her younger sister, Cece.
“I taught Tess to swim when she was 3 through the city of Peoria and her mom remembered that and had her come here,” Orcutt said. “I learned about Tess before her freshman year, and obviously, heard about Cece as well.”
Last November, a little more than a decade after those lessons, Orcutt watched Tess Simpson claim Centennial’s first state swimming championship, winning the 5A-II 50-yard freestyle race. She’s back for her senior year.
Not to be outdone, Cece earned a spot on the All-American team in the 100-yard butterfly. She’s in her junior season.
The Simpsons have made a splash from day one at Centennial. As a freshman in 2007, Tess placed second in the 200-yard individual medley and fourth in the 100-yard butterfly.
Cece’s debut in 2008 was even more impressive, picking up second place in the 100-yard butterfly and the 500-yard freestyle. Coupled with Tess’ second place in the 100-yard freestyle and fourth in the 200 individual medley, the sisters led Centennial’s girls to a fourth-place finish in 5A-II.
They also became closer through time spent together at swimming practice for Centennial and the Goodyear-based Westside Silver Fins club. Tess joined the club when she was 9, while Cece took longer to warm up to the sport.
“I joined because she did,” Cece said. “I had a harder time because I started later than most kids,”
Balancing their club practices and meets with high school swimming and studies can be difficult. The sisters practice for the Silver Fins four mornings a week and for Centennial after school. When the high school season ends, the sisters add five weekly afternoon practices and club swimming meets, which continue until June.
“Club takes up a lot of our time. That’s been hard through high school, because there’s a lot of distractions,” Tess said.
Still, results in club competition are what put young swimmers on the map. And through regular competition with the Valley’s best, the Simpson sisters have learned their strengths.
Tess is the sprinter, holding club records for the high school age group in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. In her first two years at Centennial, the team was strong enough at the 50 and needed Tess to compete in other events so it could contend for the state title.
So she tried the 200 IM, which has become the province of Silver Fins teammate Erica Stock, now a junior at Deer Valley.
Conversely, Cece’s more gifted in endurance events, in both swimming and running. She owns the club records for the 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard butterfly.
As a freshman, she tried the 500 freestyle because of the Coyotes’ depth at the 200. She also took to the butterfly quickly.
“I’ve always been free to pick, because my events aren’t the more popular ones,” Cece said. “I don’t have a lot of speed, but I like doing the longer events.”
In 2009, the additions of Scottsdale powerhouses Chaparral and Desert Mountain to 5A-II curtailed Centennial’s title hopes. So Orcutt let her swimmers concentrate on their best events.
Tess dropped the 200 IM, picked up the 50 and gained a state title in the bargain. She blew away the field in preliminaries and the finals, winning with a time of 24.21. She also finished fourth in the 100.
“High school state is one of my favorite meets, club included. To finally reach a goal like that was a great feeling,” Tess said.
Cece came in third behind a pair of Chaparral All-Americans in the 100 butterfly. She finished fifth in the 500 freestyle, and might switch to the 200 this year.
“I had seen the time standards (for All-American) and they always seemed kind of out of reach. It was really exciting to get to that point that I’d seen other swimmers reach,” Cece said.
No matter what events they enter, the Simpsons will face a very difficult path to a championship.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association realigned its divisions in individual sports this year, and Centennial moved up to Division I, the state’s largest.
Now the sisters are competing with all the state’s powerhouse programs — add Xavier Prep, Phoenix Desert Vista and Mesa Mountain View to Chaparral, Desert Mountain and Pinnacle.
For example, Tess could match up with All-Americans Katie Olsen (Desert Vista), Kelli Benjamin (Gilbert) and Samantha Guttmacher (Red Mountain) in the 50 freestyle.
Cece may face off with the top three 5A-I finishers in the 100 butterfly last year — Talie Anchustegui (Xavier), Kat Simonovic (Mountain View) and Lauren Torres (Desert Vista).
Accordingly, qualification time standards are much more stringent for this division. The Simpsons said they’re not concerned about meeting the new benchmarks, but fear schools like Centennial will suffer because of them.
“It’s going to be more of a club meet. It’s going to be really hard for people who just do high school swimming,” Tess said. “For us, its more competition. It’s kind of disappointing because our team will be so much smaller. We’re not stacked with club swimmers.”
After state, which is Nov. 4 and 6, its club competition heats up. Orcutt said she’s looking forward to having one more year with both sisters leading the team.
“I feel very lucky, because you’re not going to get very many athletes of this caliber,” Orcutt said. “Every day is a lot of fun. They set a good example in their lanes, in meets. They’re both really nice girls, too. Anybody that needs help, they’re all about helping.”
Both sisters look like safe bets to continue their careers in college. Tess has a recruiting trip to Colorado State this weekend, and also is looking at Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada-Las Vegas. She hasn’t decided on a major, but said she’s interested in business management.
Cece said she’s just starting the process, but recruiting will intensify for her in the summer. She’s concentrating on winning state this year.
In the meantime, they’ll enjoy spending another year together, in and out of the pool.
“We’ve gotten so much closer over our high school years,” Tess said. “I love having her here.”