Invitational championship tastes sweet to Neuqua Valley
The giant birthday cookies with her name on them in the hallway were just the capper for what has been a great couple of days for Neuqua Valley swimmer Izzy Harder.
Earlier this week she committed to swim at Illinois State University, then Harder celebrated her birthday Saturday by helping the defending state champion Wildcats win the eight-team Neuqua Valley Invitational.
The birthday girl was part of the Wildcats winning 200 and 400 free relays and added a second-place showing in the 500 free, which teammate Rachel Stege won with a time of 4:57.75.
For Harder and her Neuqua Valley teammates, it was the first real competition they'd seen all season, with only an intrasquad meet prior to the tough invite. The Wildcats topped the field with 695 points to hold off St. Charles North (683), which took fourth in the state in 2018.
"Everyone wants to do their best so every year we progressively get better and I feel like this year this team has a really good bond from the start," said Harder, who expects the program to add to its trophy case again at this year's state finals. "I just feel like we're going to do good things, and today was a great way to start things off."
Stege, Tiffanie Ruan and Abby Jensen joined Harder in the winning 400 free relay, with their time of 3:34.36, plenty fast enough to force the North Stars quartet of Mary Ellen Wolff, Megan Armstrong, Sydney Maxwell and Paige Armstrong to settle for second at 3:41.47.
The Wildcats team of Maxine Parkinson, Jensen, Harder and Stege won the 200 free relay in 1:38.26, while Neuqua's winning 100 free relay turned in a time of 45.05 and consisted of Ruan, Mackenzie Miller, Teagan Michalek and Megan Ciezczak.
Neuqua coach Jason Niforatos was thrilled to edge the North Stars in the meet and to see some young swimmers look primed to carry on the school's strong tradition.
"St. Charles North is always dangerous as a team at this meet or any invite because they're so deep and they swim so well. They're a power in the state so coming in we never take them for granted," he said. "They know how to put their lineup in a way that can be very competitive with us. This is our first meet for the girls so there was a lot of rust to get out. That said, I think this is a good win, a good jumping point for us."
North Stars state champion Armstrong did her part, helping win the 200 medley relay, taking second in the 400 free relay, and claiming an individual crown in the 100 backstroke.
"We did, overall all of us did a really good job," said Armstrong, who has committed to the University of South Carolina. "There was so much cheering going on and everyone was there for each other. All across the board everyone had good swims. We all improved from our times even from last night. Overall it was a really good meet."
Metea Valley all-stater McKenna Stone picked up right where she left off last fall as a sophomore. She won the 200 IM with a meet-record time of 2:06.03, then did even better while taking the 100 butterfly in a pool record time of 54.76 that broke the 2001 record set by former Rosary state champion Mary Descenza.
"I think the goal today is just to kind of just to swim as fast as possible for the conditions that we're under," the Mustangs junior said. "I was very happy with my times. I dropped a little bit. And obviously Mary Descenza is a great swimmer and just to be in the same ballpark as her is amazing. Yeah, (that record) is older than me."
Downers Grove North took third in the team standings at 401 and Waubonsie Valley fourth at 364.
Other Neuqua Valley winners included Jane Riehs in diving, Ciezczak in the 25 free, Ruan in the 50 free and the 100 free, and Parkinson in the 100 breaststroke.