Pueblo County High School girls swim coach Dan Radiff knows Mandy Downs will play a vital role in the Hornets’ future.

So much so, Radiff said, “she is our key to success down the road.”

When Downs heard of the praise from Radiff, it took her a moment to find the right words to illustrate what the recognition meant.

“It’s really humbling to know that he said that about me,” Downs said Thursday after their competition. “My goal this year is to make it back to finals day for state. I’ve made it to state the past two years, but I haven’t quite made it back into finals.”

After the Hornets’ double dual at the Hornet pool on Thursday against La Junta and Pueblo West, Downs is a step further in that process.

Downs hoped to qualify for the Class 3A state meet in the 100 butterfly at home before break.

As she made it down the pool for her final length of the event, after she touched the wall, Downs immediately did a 180 to see the board displaying times.

It read: 1 minute, 8.81 seconds. As Downs removed her goggles, her face lit up.

She finished second behind teammate Kandi Liberato, who clocked in at 1:06.57. But Downs’ placement was irrelevant. Downs’ time was 1.69 seconds ahead of state pace.

Downs said she kept stride with Liberato the entire race and it paid dividends.

“Every time I pushed off the wall I could see her,” Downs said. “I said that I just needed to keep up with her and I’ll qualify. I looked at the clock and I qualified and it was amazing.”

Downs emerged from the pool to hugs and cheers from her teammates. The Hornets celebrated accordingly for their teammate’s accomplishment.

“It was amazing,” Downs said. “Everyone on the team is so nice. We swim for each other. That was our motto last year and that’s our motto this year. Just knowing they’re there to support me and I’m there to support them is so great.

“When you’re going through trying to qualify and you’re a second off or half a second off and they’re there saying ‘oh, we know you’re going to get it’ that’s great.

Radiff was pleased to see Downs qualify in the butterfly and do so before the New Year.

Radiff also showed enthusiasm for Downs qualifying mark and praised the senior for her work.

“That’s what all of our goals have been: Hit (state qualifying times) before we go into next year,” Radiff said. “Her hitting that time, that was the biggest thing. She’s now in and is another one who is at the state meet.”

Downs is halfway through her checklist of individual qualifying goals.

She hopes to make it in the 100 breaststroke for her final season.

Downs finished second in the race at 1:21.39 on Thursday, which is less than a second away from the state time of 1:20:.50.

“It’ll take a lot of training with both coach Radiff and coach Josh (Cortese),” Downs said. “It’ll take support from my teammates and from my family. …It’s just working hard every day beginning with the end in mind and trying to work every day towards my goal instead of “oh yeah, let me have this piece of cake, it’s just one day.’”

mhill@chieftain.com