Girls swimming: A surprise state championship for Neuqua Valley
By the time a team grabbed the girls swimming state championship trophy and jumped into the water for its traditional post-meet swim, one thing was clear.
No one doubted Neuqua Valley was the best team in the meet at Evanston High School.
Improving on its performances from Friday's prelims -- sometimes in fabulous fashion -- Neuqua Valley earned its first girls swimming title in style, outscoring three-time defending champion Rosary 185-169 in one of the most competitive championship battles in years.
"We had to have the meet that we had in order to pull this off," Neuqua Valley coach Jason Niforatos said. "Everybody found some way to contribute on some level. That's what we wanted and that's the way we set it up through the year."
Even team members acknowledged their Cinderella status.
"We had no expectation coming in," Rachel Stege said. "We came out and tried our best and it came out well. We didn't pay attention to scores. We just stayed 'in the meet' and now we're all so excited."
Certainly the Wildcats weren't overlooked. Their performance in Friday's prelims had them 7 points ahead of Rosary. Though points are only scored on Saturday, the Friday totals are always very close to what teams tally on Saturday.
Still, the Wildcats had to perform in order to claim the title. Len Penkala's 2005 Neuqua Valley team finished second to Naperville Central, the previous best state finish in a girls state meet.
"It was all about the team," Neuqua Valley junior Maxine Parkinson said. "The sectional was 'get people to state' and prelims was 'get people to finals.' Today, it was 'just get to the end of the wall and do it for the team.' We weren't worried about the time, we just had to get to the wall ahead of the other teams."
In a meet this close every moment when the Wildcats exceeded their prelims placings contributed toward the victory. For example, the medley relay, seeded sixth, finished fourth in finals. Parkinson moved from a fifth seeding to a fourth placing in the 200 IM. Diver Samantha Carlson went from seventh to fifth in the one event where prelim performances are carried into finals.
But the Wildcats sealed their championship at the end of the middle portion of the meet. First sophomore Rachel Stege outswam Maine South's Annika Wagner to claim the state title in one of the best races of the meet, the 500 freestyle. Stege led early, Wagner claimed the lead with 150 strong yards in the middle of the race before Stege surged at 350 yards.
Stege was seeded first and had set the state record in prelims, but this marked a crucial "hold" for the Wildcats.
"I realized that I really want to get this and I wanted to do it for the team, so I kicked it in and it worked," Stege said.
In the very next race, swimming in the lane adjacent to Rosary, Neuqua Valley's 200 freestyle relay quartet of Cierczak, Kristen Stege, Rachel Stege and Tiffanie Ruan improved from a fourth seed in prelims to first.
"I really like that jump from the 500, which is really long, to the 50, which is a sprint. I just go all out in the relay," Rachel Stege said.
Parkinson was another who helped hammer her team's victory chances with a second-place finish in the 100 breaststroke to go with her 200 IM success.
"I'm just so proud of everybody and the work that we put in all season. We do have some studs, but it's not that we have studs and no one else. We have incredible depth. In the 100 breast we had me, but Divya Kale finished sixth," Parkinson said.
To cap their championship, the Wildcats' 400 freestyle relay cruised to victory to sweep the freestyle relays.
Metea Valley caught fire in prelims and continued through finals, placing ninth. The Mustangs used a combination of solid individual results with strong relay performances.
Individually, sophomore McKenna Stone shone, finishing second in both the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle.
"I was competing against some amazing girls, and I'm really happy with my times. I've still got two years left, which I'm happy to see what I can do. I've set the bar high for myself," Stone said.
Metea Valley's 200 freestyle relay finished second as did its meet-ending 400 freestyle relay.
"Relays are something else," Stone said. "It's a team thing and everyone wants to do well. It brings out the fire in everyone and we all want to go fast."
Kellie Willhite added a seventh-place finish in the 100 breaststroke, improving from 11th in prelims to win the consolation heat.
A year ago, Kate Morris placed in two events at the state meet. This year, the Glenbard West-South co-op swimmer went one step better, claiming the state title in the 200 freestyle. Morris, a Glenbard West sophomore, also finished fifth in the 100 freestyle and was part of the team's 200 medley relay, which finished seventh.
"I couldn't have asked for more. It's been a really great weekend and I've had a lot of fun," Morris said.
Morris said winning a state title was one of her season's goals. She outdueled Barrington's Bridget O'Leary to claim the victory.
"It's great to accomplish that. We were all fairly even halfway through. I knew I really had to kick it in gear if I wanted to win," Morris said.
The co-op finished ninth and is building toward bigger things, Morris said.
"This year has been such a great year for the whole team. We didn't win sectionals, which was a goal, but we all had a great season. Building this momentum has been great," Morris said.
Naperville Central placed 12th as a team. The Redhawks medley relay was ninth and the 400 freestyle relay was ninth. In the 100 butterfly, teammates Paige Collins and Alexa Puccini tied for eighth. Lisa Johnson was 12th in the 100 backstroke.
West Chicago's Kelly Sego was similarly busy. She swam with her team's medley relay, which finished ninth. Then she placed ninth in the 200 IM and was eighth in the 100 backstroke.
"It's my first finals and I was getting used to it. Hopefully next year, I'll get into Top 6 in both events," Sego said.
West Chicago finished 19th but was loaded with younger swimmers, including Sego, a junior.
"I'm ready for next season. The results I got this season have been super-motivating," Sego said.
Hinsdale Central finished 16th as a team and Addison Trail-Willowbrook co-op's Elissa Haake was 10th in the 200 freestyle.