By Bob York
Breaking both the 200 and 400 freestyle relay records at the New England Prep School Swimming and Diving Championships … unbelievable!
Breaking them a second straight year … priceless!
Breaking them for a third consecutive season … “unprecedented!” according to coach Sonja O’Donnell.
The Deerfield Academy girls swimming mentor has spent the past two decades walking from one end of prep school pools to the other and back again, urging her swimmers on to victory and many have obliged – but she’s never seen anything quite like this.
For the past three years, these two Big Green relay teams have become the Fab Four to their friends and the Fearsome Foursome to their enemies as they’ve not only beaten them, they’ve beaten the clock as well, “and what they’ve done is really unheard of,” said O’Donnell. Finishing first for three straight years is one thing, but doing it in three straight record-breaking performances, that’s something else entirely.”
This winter’s cast of “Fast and Furious,” which ultimately helped lead Deerfield to a second-place finish at the New England championships, were Ritchey Howe (12), Liza Bragg (13), Jenner McLeod (13) and Julie Hwang (13), as they paved the way in the 200 freestyle in 1:35.65, while their performance in the 400 topped off at 3:31.49 and earned them All-American status in both. The Big Green finished the New England meet with 357 points, which was good for a silver medal and trailed only Exeter’s 368. Suffield picked up the bronze medal with 327 points.
“Every girl on the block really nailed it,” said O’Donnell of the efforts of her 200 and 400 relay teams. “You just can’t do it any better than they did,” but with three of the four returning for one last season, we may just need to wait a year to see if they could be saving their best for last – when Deerfield plays host to the New England meet in March.
“I came away from that meet on Cloud Nine,” added O’Donnell. “We won six of 12 events during the New England meet, while we finished second in two others … you can’t do much better than that.
“The difference all came down to team depth,” explained O’Donnell, who described this as the fastest New England meet she’s ever been associated with. “Exeter had more swimmers than we did, so even though we finished strong in the medals count, they were able to make up the point differential further down the score sheet.”
“OD (O’Donnell) had us better prepared for this meet than the other teams were … I think everyone on the team went out and produced their best times of the season,” said Bragg. “We knew what we had to do and we all went out and did it.”
For Bragg, that meant playing a part in four of those six gold medals the Big Green carted home. In fact, this marked the second year in a row that she has rung up four first-place finishes, as she also won the 100-individual medley (2:05.57) and the 100-backstroke (56.20) and earned the Grace Robertson Award as the meet’s outstanding swimmer. The presentation to Bragg, who, along with McLeod will serve as next year’s co-captains, marks the second time in four years that a Deerfield girl has received this award. In 2010, Julia Pielock was the trophy’s recipient.
“Our freshman year, we just came out of nowhere to win the relays,” said Bragg. “Then, as sophomores, we weren’t very nervous about defending our titles because at that time, there weren’t any teams, time-wise, that were close to us.
“This winter, however,” added Bragg, “both Andover, Exeter and Deerfield were all within a second of each other in both relays, so heading in, we were all pretty nervous … we all knew there wouldn’t be any margin for error.”
As for their final go-around next winter, Bragg feels as though she, McLeod and Hwang and a swimmer to be named later, could go out on top.
“Depending on who we find to replace Ritchey, I think we can win one more time,” said Bragg. And she also feels the team could still have another record or two left in it.
“I think it’s definitely possible, especially in the 200 relay,” said Bragg, “but we’ll just have to wait and see who the fourth member of the team will be and how well we work together. “
As for her individual events, Bragg’s dream ending would be to also win both the 100- backstroke and 100 individual-medley one last time. And it wouldn’t take all that much for her to finish up with record performances there, either. The New England record in the 100-backstroke is 56.04. Bragg’s best time there so far is 56.20. That’s 1/600th of a second.”
As for the 100 IM, “that’s a little more of a stretch,” admitted Bragg. That’s because the New England mark there is 2:02.99, while Bragg’s best to date is 2:05.57. “That’s about two and a half seconds, said Bragg. “That’s quite a bit of time, but I dropped two seconds in that event this past year so if I can keep that pace up, who knows.”
McLeod, who also picked up gold in the 50-freestyle in a time of 23.82 and silver in the 100-freestyle at 52.32, which are now both Deerfield school records, wasn’t thinking about shattering records when she got to the pool.
“We knew we were going to have a tough time just winning … never mind setting a new record,” said McLeod. “Andover beat us in the 400 relay during our dual meet, but looking back, I think that was a good thing. At the New England meet, we were really charged up and we won the event by nearly four seconds.”
Like her two other returning teammates, McLeod, who has helped trim about four seconds off both New England relay times since Deerfield began snipping away at them three years ago, feels optimistic about her senior season.
“I’m already looking forward to swimming with Liza and Julie and whoever replaces Ritchey,” said McLeod. “We’ve all done this before … we know what to do, so now it’s up to us to take advantage of that experience and just go for it.”
For Hwang, who has the freshest face on the team, having been a member for only two years now, jumped in and never missed a beat. This season, she posted a fourth-place finish in the 100-freestyle as well as her relay results and was voted the team’s MVP following the season.
“I’m just so proud of everyone on the team,” said Hwang. “Everyone worked so hard, and everyone is so passionate about the sport, it’s just nice to see all that hard work and passion pay off.
“Things weren’t as easy this year as they were for us last year,” added Hwang. “Last year, we were seeded number one in both relays and no team was really even close to us as far as time was concerned. This year, we were seeded second in the 400, because Amherst beat us during the regular season. We were seeded number one in the 200, but we were barely number one, as Andover’s time was two/one hundredths of a second behind our time.”
As for Howe, the Big Green senior admitted that even if she’d tried, she couldn’t have scripted a better ending to her swimming career at Deerfield.
“It was a dream come true to do what we were able to do over the past three years,” said Howe, who also earned a gold medal in the 100-butterfly in 58.70 and an eighth-place finish in the 200 freestyle. “I just can’t think of a better way to wrap things up than with three first-place finishes and a pair of New England records. Most of all though, I can’t think of three other girls I’d rather have shared this all with,” added Howe. “I just love them so much.”
Deerfield’s diving divas also came through in the point production by taking home two of the three medals in the 1-meter board competition. Danielle DeNunzio (12) finished with a silver medal with 463.45 points on 11 dives, while Natalie DeMuro (14) earned the bronze with 428.30 points. Marina Vranos (12), who shared this year’s Coaches Award with Amy Li (12), wound up eighth with 310.95 points.
One other medal winner for the Big Green was its 200-yard medley relay team that posted a third-place finish. Combining for the bronze medal were Amy Li (12), Juliette Lee (14), Claire Collins (15) and Maggie Savage (15).
For a freshman, Collins rang up a number of points for Deerfield during her New England debut, as she registered a fifth-place finish in the 100 breaststroke and an 11th spot in the 500 freestyle. Li was seventh and Lee was eighth in the 50-freestyle.