Every year, Illinois' girls swimming meet ranks as one of the fastest states in the nation. This year, with the high-tech suits long gone, the state field could be the fastest-ever.
The favorite to lift the team trophy for the third year in a row and the 12th time overall is New Trier and all eyes will be on Glenbrook South senior Olivia Smoliga, who is likely to try to break not just state but national records in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 backstroke.
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But local fans have plenty to support as well. St. Charles East qualified swimmers in every event at last week's St. Charles North sectional, a meet in which the host North Stars qualified all three relays and four individual entries. Rosary qualified its three relays and six individual entries at the Metea Valley sectional, the same sectional from which West Aurora qualified both divers.
The meet takes place at Evanston's antiquated pool, which features arena seating above the pool deck. While the water will be choppy, the sound will be deafening, certainly during Friday's preliminaries and definitely at Saturday's finals.
Like all the top teams, St. Charles East's swimmers have put in excessive yardage to get to the state meet. The Saints will have trained 600,000 yards by the time they head to Friday's prelims.
"They worked hard to get here," St. Charles East coach Joe Cabel said. "We talk about training not just in the water but out of the water -- weight training -- too. They've done a good job of taking care of themselves, eating right and doing things to avoid sickness. It's paid off and helped to put ourselves in this situation."
Taking the pre-meet "psych sheet" allows a look at where swimmers might finish if the finals were held before the meet starts. The psych sheet is often called the "psych out sheet" because the only day swims count for points is Saturday.
Still, the Saints have a number of swimmers in position to score when their resting taper takes full effect. While no one is predicting a run at the state title, a finish somewhere in the Top 10 is certainly possible.
"A lot rests on our relays," Cabel said. "We've got a shot to be better than we've been in the past. To be honest, the top three is pretty far out there."
Those three relays all have that opportunity to move up. Most of the Saints relay swimmers were unrested at the sectional meet, meaning the relays could each drop significant time in Friday's prelims. Strong prelim finishes are key because only the top six can swim for the state title on Saturday. The best a team in the consolation final can finish is seventh.
"No doubt we've got a great shot," Cabel said. "Most of our kids were not rested for the last meet. We're pointing toward this weekend's meet, though we can't discount the fact that other people have done the same."
One of the Saints senior stars is Nicole Chapko, who is qualified in the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke.
"She was injured most of last year and coming out of rehab from a knee injury," Cabel said. "She's fully healed and as a senior, she's gotten better all season. She's kind of worked away at it all season and had her best untapered meet she's ever had last weekend."
Cabel said that while Chapko is a leader for the team, she isn't the rowdiest of the Saints on-deck.
"She is a quiet girl, though I'm sure she's hilarious in the locker room," Cabel said. "She leads by doing and we encourage that. We have a whole leadership packet we go through for someone to be a senior captain and we want people to lead by doing. (Chapko) doesn't say much, but she does it right."
As a tall swimmer, the fact that Chapko's best performances have come at the end of her high school career are perhaps no surprise.
"She's learned to use that height to her advantage," Cabel said. "Being tall doesn't necessarily equate into being a fast swimmer. But if you learn to use that height, it can be an advantage, and she's come into that more this year."
Chapko is seeded among the top six -- along with teammate Shea Hoyt -- in the 100 breaststroke. She is just outside the scoring position in the IM.
"I think most people would tell you her best race is the IM," Cabel said. "She doesn't have a weak stroke. She's a strong swimmer and is our fastest in every stroke. We had a champion (Emma Smith) in the IM last year, and it's one of the traditional strengths of our team. I think of IM'ers as utility swimmers, but to be equally proficient in all four strokes is a bit of a rarity."
Another of the Saints to watch this weekend is junior Izzie Bindseil, who is seeded sixth in the 200 freestyle and is close to scoring in the 500 freestyle.
"She is one of the funnier people on our team," Cabel said. "She may be quiet, but she has a wry sense of humor. This year, she is really coming into her own and she deserves everything she gets. Watching her swim at the sectional, she made it look easy and it looks easy because she's put in 600,000 yards to make that happen."
If the IM is a traditional strong area for the Saints, so is distance swimming. Cabel said Bindseil is one of the team's D(istance)-mommas.
"We live on our distance swimmers at St. Charles East," Cabel said. "She likes swimming and she swims distances well. The opportunity for her to score at the state meet is a new one, but she feels she deserves it because she has worked hard."
Hoyt, a junior, is also seeded highly. In addition to her top six seeding in the breaststroke, Hoyt is seeded in the top 12 in the 50 freestyle. Mary Snyder is qualified in the 200 freestyle and the 100 freestyle. Lucy Johnson swims in the 50 freestyle and Kate Nagler swims in the 100 backstroke.
Heading into the sectional meet, St. Charles North coach Rob Rooney preached a "no expectations" theme to a team which only had one swimmer with a state cut during the season.
The North Stars produced a strong sectional and finished second in the meet to St. Charles East. Rooney sees no reason to change the "no expectations" theme heading into the state meet.
"We're just going to take this one step at a time," Rooney said. "We obviously had a good learning curve and we had a good meet on Saturday. Now we have another meet for them to go to and for us to talk about. We'll go in there with every intention to swim faster and that's what we're going to try to do."
That swimmer with a state cut during the season was freshman Monica Guyette and she qualified in the 500 freestyle.
"She is truly someone you can coach," Rooney said. "She doesn't put a lot of pressure on herself. She is hardworking and she is extremely fun. She is bubbly and a lighthearted kid on the outside. Deep down inside, she is an extreme competitor who has had to learn a lot."
Guyette has already seen one of the state's best when she was paired next to Normal University High's Hannah Boyd in the North Stars Invitational in early October. Boyd is seeded No. 1 in the 500 freestyle in Friday's prelims.
"(Boyd) kind of blew (Guyette's) doors off in the 200 and we had to kind of screw her head back on for the 500 and she swam a great 500," Rooney said. "It's a learning curve in getting ready to swim that one-time event."
By her own admission, Guyette struggled through the 500 freestyle at the sectional meet, swimming in mid-taper. Rooney said that won't be a problem at the state meet, by which time her taper will be finished.
"She's fine now this week," Rooney said. "She looks better in the water. And she has the nicest group of girls around her as teammates."
St. Charles North also has Chrloe Tykal qualified in the 500 freestyle, Hannah Gursky qualified in the 50 freestyle and Hannah Zimmer qualified in the 100 freestyle.
"It's a pretty unique group of kids," Rooney said. "They train hard and they support each other. They've had their ups and downs, but they clawed back as a team and that is a true test of what the team accomplished. They did awesome."
If you're looking for challenges for Rosary entering the state prelims, here they are: the Beads only have freshmen and sophomores swimming and none of this year's qualifiers has ever finished in the top six in the state meet.
That said, Rosary is another of those programs where swimmers are expected to excel, no matter what the obstacles.
"Is it a rebuilding year?" Rosary coach Bill Schalz asked rhetorically. "I guess it is. It's a matter of what the freshmen and sophomores do. It's just a different mix and I think it's going to be interesting."
The four individual swimmers who qualified for the Beads -- Annie Gosselin, Katie Rentz, Kate Canfield and Erin Hart -- did not taper for the sectional meet. They are joined by the rest of the sectional team, who all get to travel to Evanston thanks to the qualification of all three relays.
"That's great for the next couple of years," Schalz said. "We're going to get a lot of kids that experience on Friday. But I'm not just looking at this as 'hey, let's get experience and get better.' We have some goals. We want to get into that top 10. It's going to be interesting to see how these kids do."
As a result, as with all teams wishing to place highly, the relays are a key.
"If we want to get into the conversation of being in the top 10, we have to get one or two of our relays in the top 12 and at least one in the top 6 -- we have to score our relays," Schalz said.
Although she is a freshman, Gosselin is a Rosary swimmer to watch this year and for the next four years because she could be something special. She is seeded in the top 12 in the 200 IM and also in the top 12 in the 100 backstroke.
"She's the fastest returning 200 IM'er from the summer," Schalz said. "Is she favored to win it and would she be a darkhorse to win it? Yeah. But does she have a shot to win it? Absolutely."
Schalz had a one-word description for the type of swimmer Gosselin is, though he expanded after first saying "tough."
"She's really good in everything," Schalz said. "She can pretty do anything she puts her mind to. She is a tough racer and one of the hardest workers I've ever had. She hates to lose. In fact, she probably hates to lose more than she likes to win. She's that tough."
Rentz is qualified in the 100 butterfly and the 100 breaststroke.
"She's going to be on the cusp," Schalz said. "Her lifetime bests are a little off what it takes to get to top six. She hasn't gone as fast as her goal times this year. We'll see how she goes, but she does have scoring potential, no doubt."
Hart is qualified in the 100 freestyle and Canfield qualified in the 100 backstroke.
"They're all good friends, these girls," Schalz said. "They hang out together. I don't worry about the leadership aspect of it."
West Aurora's sectional diving pair of Shannon Sullivan and Kayla Hickernell qualified as at-large divers.