By BOB YORK —
Some people think 13 is an unlucky number. Sonja O’Donnell is one who would beg to differ.
“This was my thirteenth year of coaching this team,” said O’Donnell, the Deerfield Academy girls swimming coach, and she wouldn’t have missed a minute of it. “To me, this has been a lucky year … a lucky thirteen.”
O’Donnell would be the first to admit, however, that much of that luck had a great deal to do with a pair of very talented swimmers – compliments of the Class of ’13, of course – who helped lead the Big Green to the medals podium during each of their four years here.
For seniors Liza Bragg and Jenner McLeod drip drying on the medals podium became as much a part of their standard operating procedure as slipping on their swim caps. This dynamic duo once again captured a maximum of four gold medals each to help lift Deerfield to a bronze medal at the New England Prep School Division I Swimming and Diving Championships. Suffield captured the crown with a total of 385 points, while Exeter saw its championship streak end at three straight years, as it placed second with 355 points. Deerfield placed third with 316 points.
The two, who reached the legendary status in prep school pool halls from St. Paul’s to St. George’s, seemed to get rather greedy whenever a gold medal went up for grabs at the other end of the pool. Over their four-year careers, Bragg, who was the recipient of the team’s Most Valuable Swimmer Award and who will be taking her swimming talents to Duke University in the fall, captured an incredible 15 of a possible 16 New England championship races she competed in. McLeod, meanwhile, who has been recruited by Kenyon College, finished her prep school career by capturing 11 of her 16 title bouts.
“ I doubt there will be many who can match those marks … especially when you consider that eight of those championships were accomplished through relay races,” said O’Donnell, whose Big Green teams made the most of having both Bragg and McLeod around. During their four-year tour of duty, Deerfield earned a silver medal and three bronze medals during those New England championship meets.
With Bragg and McLeod capturing their customary four first-place finishes this winter, the Big Green girls were able to post six gold-medal performances out of the dozen the meet had to offer.
During the individual competition, Bragg captured the 200 Individual Medley crown for the fourth consecutive year – and the way in which she accomplished this victory was, well, in a word: typical. To the layman, her winning time of 2:04.58, probably doesn’t mean much. To a swimmer, it’s awesome. Just ask Exeter’s Olivia Jackson. She finished second to Bragg – nearly four full seconds behind her – in 2:08.47.
“Liza won the event rather handily,” said O’Donnell of a clocking that could be hanging from the Koch Pool record board for quite some time. “It was a personal best for Liza, as well as a school and a Division I New England meet record. And,” added the Deerfield mentor, “it also earned All-American consideration.”
Bragg’s other individual event that turned into gold was the 100 backstroke, where she prevailed in a time of 57.23.
“It’s been a great ride and a great deal of fun,” said Bragg, of her four-year rule of the pool. “In my wildest dreams, when I first came here I never could have anticipated that things could have ever gone like this.”
“But,” added Bragg, who will be competing in the 100 and 200 backstroke as well as the 200 and 400 individual medley for the Blue Devils, “there’s no way I would have had this kind of success if I hadn’t had the outstanding teammates I had on those relay teams.
“Setting individual records is one thing,” said Bragg, “but being able to win eight relay races in four years takes a lot of teamwork and because of that teamwork, I was able to enjoy a very successful career here at Deerfield.”
For McLeod, her expertise in the individual frays comes in the 50 and 100 freestyle races, where she once again swept the competition. She won the 50 in 23.89, while she captured the 100 in a clocking of 51.79.
Then, it became payback time, which would put this Deerfield swimmer and her coach both on McLeod Nine. During the post-meet celebrations, McLeod climbed the medals podium to receive her four gold medals, plus something she wasn’t expecting: The Grace Roberson Award, which is annually presented to the Most Outstanding Swimmer of the girls meet.
“To be completely honest, the possibility of winning that award never crossed my mind until I heard my name called,” said McLeod. “it was such an emotional meet, especially so after the 400 relay … which was our last race for Deerfield, being named the meet’s MVP was probably the furthest thing from my mind.”
“It’s a wonderful acknowledgment of Jenner’s accomplishments, her character and her spectacular swimming abilities,” said O’Donnell, who looked on last year as Bragg won the same award. In fact, this marks the third time in the past four years that a Deerfield girls has been named the meet’s MVP, as Julia Pielock was the award’s recipient in 2010. “It’s voted on by the league’s coaches, so it’s a very prestigious award.”
This year’s ceremonies also mark the first time ever that Deerfield participants swept these awards, as Taylor Clough (’13) received the Babcock Award, emblematic of the boys Most Valuable Participant, after he captured the one-meter diving competition for the fourth consecutive year.
“It all makes this award so very special,” said McLeod. “Having watched Liza win it last year and Julia, whom I really looked up to when I first came to Deerfield, win it my freshman year, this award means a great deal to me.
“Plus,” added McLeod, “being able to win this award along side Taylor to give Deerfield its first sweep of these awards, means a great deal to me as well.”
It proved ingenious – except to the opposition – when O’Donnell opted four years ago to stick these two freshman phenoms on the same two relay teams: the 200 and 400 freestyle. It seemed as though no matter who filled the other two slots on these crews, they inevitably left the competition high and dry.
In this year’s 200 relay event, Bragg and McLeod combined with Juliette Lee (’14) and Nahla Achi (’15) to post a blue-ribbon effort in 1:37.31, defeating second-place Exeter (1:39.91) by more than two full seconds. The margin of victory grew to nearly five seconds in the 400 relay, as Bragg, McLeod and Lee teamed up with Claire Collins (’15) to clock in at 3:32.48 to finish first nearly five seconds in front of Suffield (3:37.19).
While both relay times proved fast enough to establish new pool records and earn All-American consideration, neither were fast enough to garner New England record status. Both of those were set last year. Bragg, McLeod, Ritchie Howe and Julie Hwang set both the 200 and 400 marks at 1:35.65 and 3:31.49 respectively.
Rounding out the medal rush for the Big Green was Claire Collins (’15), who earned a bronze in the 100 breaststroke (1:08.83) and helped the 200 yard medley relay team finish in third spot in a time of 1:50.36. She would later receive the Coach’s Award, along with Natalie DeMuro. The remainder of that unit was made up of Elizabeth Eastman (’13) Maggie Savage (’15) and Achi. The leading diver for Deerfield during the championships was Elissa DeNunzio (’14) who placed sixth out of a field of 24 with a final tally of 355.70.