Confidence, that crucial ingredient, had gone missing for Palatine's Nicole Huffman somewhere around the middle of the girls swimming season.
She'd been hoping to finish her high school career with a bang -- a best time in the 100-yard backstroke, somewhere in the 58-second range, was the goal.
Which made the 1:02 clockings she was regularly producing at mid-season meets hard to swallow.
"I really started to wonder if it was going to happen for me," she said. "But my teammates, they kind of saved me. They kept telling me, 'Don't lose faith -- you've got this.'
"And before long I was like, they're right -- I'm going to do this."
The evidence of that regained confidence was on display Saturday at New Trier High School in Winnetka for the championship finals.
Huffman, a senior making her third straight state meet appearance, produced a school-record time of 57.91 in Friday's prelims and just about matched that with a 57.95 in the finals. She's the first Palatine swimmer to score points at the state meet since 2000 with a 12th-place finish.
"I think the main difference is that being a senior, I just worked a little harder and was able to stay focused," she said. "Even when things weren't going completely smoothly for me."
Fast times abounded, as Glenbrook South junior Olivia Smoliga bettered her own state record in the 50 freestyle, winning in 22.55. She also won the the 100 free in 48.92.
New Trier repeated as team champion with 177 points, holding off a strong second-day charge from Fenwick (162), which won all three relays after setting a state mark in Friday's prelims in the 200 free relay. Rosary was third at 136.5.
Another area swimmer breaking a school scoring drought was Hersey junior Amanda Petro. She earned her first finals appearance in the 200 freestyle and placed ninth in 1:52.95. Hersey's Katie Gaughan and Melinda Harrald were the Huskies' most recent placers in 1996.
The performance marked a big step forward for Petro, who hopes to use the experience of racing in the finals session as a springboard toward a top-six finish next season.
"This meet is very different than any other meet I've been to, that's for sure," she said. "There's all this energy and noise, but then right before the race -- dead silence. It's serious. Intense.
"I think it can only help that I've got three years under my belt now."
Her coach, Dick Mortensen, thinks Petro's unique combination of speed and endurance might be best suited to a race that, unfortuantely, does not exist.
"If they had a 300 freestyle," he said, "she'd be a state champion right now."
Barrington senior Erika Elliott was somewhat disappointed in her times in the 50 and 100 freestyles over the weekend, but she did deliver her best race of the meet in the consolation heat of the 50 free Saturday. She finished in 24.03 to place eighth, and also earned points with an 11th-place effort in the 100 free.
"No best times, so on that level it's not what I was looking for," said the Northwestern-bound standout. "But I gave it everything I had."
Elliott leaves with an impressive legacy. She holds team records in the 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and medley relay, earned multiple all-state honors, and had two straight years of scoring points in individual events in four consecutive years of state meet qualification.
That's the kind of career achievement track Fillies sophomore Mekenna Scheitlin seems to be on. She was right beside Elliott in the consolation heat of the 50 free and placed 12th, just slightly slower than her lifetime best qualifying effort Friday.
"I was thrilled to just have the opportunity to swim, and then to be right next to Erika was really neat," Scheitlin said. "We train together so much, and we really got to be good friends this year. She was such a great team leader for us. It's sad for me to see her go."
For Prospect freshman Dana Liva, the first state meet experience far exceeded her own expectations. Coach Sara Koscheleb and Liva agreed that anywhere in the top 20 would have made for a successful meet; Liva instead qualified for Saturday's final three rounds and ended up placing 12th at 337.35.
"In some ways, she's like a typical freshman," Koscheleb said. "You know, bouncing around on deck, goofing around, having fun.
"But then, when it's time to compete, everything changes -- she's all business."
Koscheleb, a first-year coach for the Knights, said she and Liva approached this season as a time to get acclimated to diving at the highest levels.
"I just wanted her to be here, experience, take it all in and have fun," Koscheleb said. "I mean, you're a freshman -- go out and enjoy it, see what this all about. And hopefully learn from it and if things go well, you get another shot."