By Bob York
Times dropped and records fell, and by the time the Deerfield girls swim team had cleaned up its carnage following this winter’s New England championship meet, its haul was seven medals–four gold, one silver and two bronze–and a pair of New England records.
For the second straight year, the Big Green finished third in the final standings to Exeter and Andover, but it’s the way in which her swimmers earned that bronze medal that had coach Sonja O’Donnell excited.
“We scored a lot more points this year … we closed the gap on both Exeter and Andover, and that’s really encouraging.”
Last year, Exeter finished first with 372 points, while Andover was second at 341. Deerfield, meanwhile, closed out a distant third with 246 points.
This winter, the Big Green drastically shrank the landscape of New England girls prep school swimming.
This year, Exeter topped the field with 349 points, that’s 23 points less than last year. Andover, meanwhile, was the silver medalist with 325 points, 16 points less than it produced last winter. And where did they go? Well, you might start with the Big Green. It closed the gap considerably on the Big Red and the Big Blue this winter, as it squeezed a whopping 74 more points out of this year’s competition than it produced last year. Deerfield ran its point total from a distant third spot a year ago to nearly surpassing Andover for second place this season with a 320-point effort.
Liza Bragg (’13) was the big reason for Deerfield’s expanded point production during this winter’s New England competition, as the sophomore sensation helped contribute more than a third (120) of the 320 points the Big Green attained. Bragg secured 40 of those points all by herself, as she picked up 20 points each for finishing first in both the 200-yard Individual Medley in a time of 2:07.45 and the 100-yard backstroke in 57.78. She also swam a share of the winning 200- and 400-yard freestyle relay teams that were worth another 40 points apiece. Both relay efforts not only earned gold medals, but finished in New England record times as the Deerfield swimmers clipped both record clockings for the second consecutive year.
Bragg combined with Ritchey Howe (’12), Jenner McLeod (’13) and Julie Hwang (’13) in the 200 relay to post a best-ever time of 1:36.65.
“I swam the anchor leg of that race,” said McLeod of a performance that ended with her best effort ever in the event with a time of 23.89.
“I knew we had a shot at a new record when I dove in,” added McLeod, who was one of two recipients of this year’s Coach’s Award, “and when I finished, I could hear everyone shouting that we’d done it, but when I finally looked up at the clock, that’s when it all started to sink in that we’d set a new record.”
In the 400, it was Bragg, Howe, McLeod and Anne Skoczylas (’14) who finished in a record time of 3:33.31. And both relay times were also good enough to qualify the two crews for All-American status.
“I’m extremely happy with the way all the girls competed at the New England meet this year,” said O’Donnell, whose team posted an 8-1 showing during the regular season and also captured a gold medal at the Western New England Championships. “Going in, we always strive to have each and every girl attain their personal best times and performances and once again, that’s exactly what we got.”
And the Big Green mentor got even more than that from Bragg.
“What Liza did was simply incredible,” said O’Donnell. “Winning three gold medals at a New England meet would be considered a tremendous effort and you see it happen every now and then, but four golds … that’s pretty rare.”
O’Donnell also pointed out that Bragg had to battle the schedule maker to pull off her gold-plated finish.
“Due to the way swim meet schedules are set up, Liza had to compete in three of the last four events of the day,” said O’Donnell, “and she still won gold in all three … that’s no easy task.”
“I’m amazed at how well we did … it turned out to be a really special day for the Deerfield girls swimming program,” said Bragg, who received the team’s Most Valuable Swimmer award.
“When we lost Julia (Pielock) last year to graduation, we not only lost a tremendous competitor, but a tremendous leader as well,” added Bragg. “And we knew everyone on the team was going to have to step up … including the freshmen and sophomores if we were going to fill the void she left and be a successful team.”
Pielock, who earned MVP honors at last year’s New England championship meet, capped off her Deerfield career there by winning the 50-yard freestyle for the third straight year and then helped the Big Green earn record breaking performances in both the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays in 1:37.21 and 3:34.08 respectively.
“It’s amazing,” said O’Donnell, “up until last year, those two records had remained untouched for quite some time and now, in a span of just two years, they’ve been broken twice by Deerfield swimmers.”
The secret behind the back-to-back record performances was that O’Donnell wasn’t able to find one swimmer to take Pielock’s place on the relay teams. She found two – one for each team. And the winners were … Hwang in the 200 and Skoczylas in the 400.
In addition to the 80 points they contributed to the two winning relay efforts, other members of those two crews, much like Bragg, also ventured out to compete on their own.
McLeod added 33 points onto her relay efforts with a second-place finish in the 100 freestyle and a third-place showing in the 50 free, while Howe posted 25 more points for a third-place showing in the 100 free and a ninth spot in the 50 free. Hwang picked up 22 for her eighth-place finishes in the 100 backstroke and the 50 free, while Skoczylas added 17 for an eighth spot in the 100 butterfly.
The Big Green 200 medley relay team, meanwhile, cashed in 26 points for the cause, as Hannah Broadhurst (’11), Amy Li (’12), Elizabeth Jeffrey (’13) and Hwang grabbed a sixth-place finish in that event.
Over in the adjacent pool, a trio of Deerfield’s diving divas produced 39 points for the Big Green. Danielle DeNunzio (’12), who also won a share of this year’s Coach’s Award, registered 15 points with a fourth-place finish with 420.70 points, while Natalie DeMuro (’14) had 13 points with a sixth-place finish on 383.90 points to earn All-American consideration. Marina Vranos (’12), meanwhile, contributed 11 points for an eighth-place showing.
“To have three of your divers finish in the top eight at the New England meet is truly an outstanding feat,” said O’Donnell