Girls swimming and diving: Welker back on deck, this time at Benet
For Sue Welker, it was the right time to return to the pool deck as a high school girls swimming and diving coach.
Welker coached at Naperville Central from 2006-13, the last four years of which she was head coach. For a variety of reasons, she stepped away, only to resurface this season at Benet.
"I think the timing was great," she said. "It came at the right time in my life. With my master's swim program, we're kind of suspended; we're running outdoor workouts."
She's stepped into a good situation, with 2019 state qualifiers Tabitha Torres, a senior, and junior Maura Fitzgerald, along with an up-and-comer in junior Jacqueline Yap.
But it's not without its challenges. Benet doesn't have a pool, so the Redwings have had to use the Hinsdale Community Pool, Naperville Tennis Club, West Superior Training in Willowbrook and now the new FMC Natatorium in Westmont.
She wouldn't trade it, though. Not for a moment.
"They are very disciplined, hardworking, conscientious young women," Welker said. "My biggest goal for them is getting them back to mental health and work on the process to being happy again, and not driving so hard the training."
Her new charges are enjoying both her experience and her approach.
"I've known Sue and I was super-excited to find out she was coaching us," Torres said. "One thing that I like about Sue, not having state or sectionals this year, it was a tough realization, but she's helped the senior swimmers understand that there are a lot of things bigger than swimming."
Added Fitzgerald: "She's really lightened the mood and she's made sure everyone is bright and happy when they come to the pool."
Stars, Redhawks meet again
A year ago, St. Charles North finished tied for eighth in state.
Just ahead of the North Stars, in seventh place, was Naperville Central.
The two teams met on Aug. 28-29 at Naperville Central, but this time, the stakes were much different -- giving everyone a chance to swim programs-wide.
The meet wasn't scored, which on the surface might seem strange for two state powers. But not in Rob Rooney's mind.
"It was for the kids to compete," said the North Stars coach. "It was probably all those kids' first competition from back in February, because they were swimming club."
Rooney said he and his counterpart at Naperville Central, Mike Adams, share the same philosophy -- that the only thing that really matters is the end of the season. In other words, dual meets are merely a dress rehearsal. So why not make sure everyone had a chance to swim?
Diving was held Aug. 28, with varsity swim events at 8 a.m. the next day. Junior varsity followed at 11 a.m., with freshmen at 2 p.m. Rooney said upward of 60 athletes participated from both schools.
Payton Baxter, a state finalist in the 200 individual medley last year, is the only St. Charles North senior, and said the experience was different, but she recognizes it's the new normal.
"The environment is super-different because of Covid, and I think we've done very good adapting," she said. "It's very weird not scoring at a regular meet, and having our masks on. But I think we're doing a good job at it. It's just going to be different this year."
And how. Her teammate, junior Angelina Messina, added, "We couldn't be close or high-five each other or the other team. You were on your own. You were forced to be isolated, which is sad."
Craffey focused on present
Vernon Hills senior Casey Craffey is committed to swim at Northern Arizona next school year, a beautiful campus located in the mountains near Flagstaff.
It's fun for her to think about what will be, but for the moment, she's focusing on the odd competition that will come with her senior year of swimming.
The Central Suburban League is opting for "virtual" dual meets this season, where two competing schools will swim at their own facilities, with swimmers placed according to their times.
"It's so weird," said Craffey, who owns school records in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events. "Really weird. I'm so used to pacing off of other people. It's so different; it's you and your time and that's how you have to swim."
In fact, this whole season has been really weird so far for Craffey and the rest of the Cougars. There will be no state meet, which means she won't be able to improve on her 2019 ninth-place finish in the 200 freestyle and seventh in the 500 freestyle. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have goals.
She has to have them, considering her future swimming aspirations in Arizona.
"Honestly, in practices I've been focusing on pushing myself and my teammates to the times we had last year," she said. "I want to get to the times I was at before everything happened, and get back in shape, too."
As for the concept of a virtual meet, where only three swimmers in an event can score, Vernon Hills coach A.J. Block said the format has its advantages.
"The beauty of having a virtual meet means you can have more people in your meet at one time," Block said. "We can do two levels, a varsity and a JV1. But at least you can fill more spots. It gives kids more opportunity.
"A team that's not deep, this could be a good thing. When we go against our biggest competition, it's, How many people do I want to swim?"