North Meck girls still believe they have what it takes to be best
by Chris Hunt
It’s been a long time coming, but it seems the odds are finally stacked up against North Mecklenburg’s swim team this year.
After years of dominating their conference, the opening of Hough High in Cornelius in the fall drained the Vikings’ strength in the pool and took their coach of the past five seasons, first-year Husky head man Tim Queen. With North Meck’s once-deep and talented roster depleted, and minus one championship coach, many assume that the North Meck boys’ and girls’ string of 24 consecutive conference championships is in jeopardy.
And they might be right – at least on the boys side.
Word of the Vikings’ demise isn’t a “hot-off-the-presses” kind of story. Hough announced the hiring of Queen last February, and it’s a well-known fact that North Meck drew plenty of talent from the Cornelius area – which is now Hough territory. Even the most casual fan of high school swimming could see the writing on the wall.
Hough is loaded this year with plenty of former North Meck and Hopewell swimmers, and Lake Norman High returns most of its squad that swam to a top-five finish in the 4A state meet last year. Most people fully expect those two teams to battle it out to become the first program to dethrone North Meck since acid-wash jeans were in style and “Miami Vice” topped the Nielson ratings.
The only thing is, the 2010-11 North Meck girls swim team isn’t exactly ready to roll over and concede the I-MECK 4A conference championship. They are singing a different tune. The Viking girls still have their eyes set on a 25th consecutive league title.
Unlike the boys squad, which returns just 12 swimmers from last season, the Viking girls roster still boasts more than 25 athletes, many of whom qualified for the 2010 state meet. With plenty of strength left to fill their relay teams, North Meck can still make a case for I-MECK 4A championship considerations.
Even narrow regular-season loses to frontrunners Lake Norman and Hough won’t shake the Viking girls’ optimism. On Dec. 15, Hough edged North Meck by just seven points, 145-138, and Lake Norman escaped with a 10-point victory on Dec. 7. The Huskies and Wildcats walked away with bragging rights, but in no way did either outcome indicate a clear-cut favorite for the conference championship, which will be held at Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics on Jan. 22.
“I think everyone thinks of us as underdogs, but we don’t,” said North Meck senior Kaitlyn Poff. “Our relays are still very strong. We know we still have a shot because most points come from those events.”
The Viking girls still think they have enough depth to make up the narrow difference between their opponents at the conference meet to preserve the streak. The way they see it, had one or two events gone their way during the regular season, they would still have been the league favorites.
North Meck still has three of the four swimmers who propelled the 400-yard freestyle relay team to second place at the state meet: Poff and juniors Linsay Cooper and Molly Sanborn. Cooper and Poff were also top individual performers at the state meet and made up half of last year’s 200 medley relay team that finished fifth in Chapel Hill. At Raleigh, Cooper was third in the 100 butterfly, while Poff, a sprinter, came in eighth in the 50 freestyle.
As talented as they are, however, Cooper and Poff won’t be expected to carry the load by themselves.
Seniors Danielle Oliver and Olivia Farley also have state-meet experience with freestyle relays, competing in the 200 freestyle relay last winter. Against Hough, the duo combined with Rachel Bennett and Leonie Becker to win the 200 freestyle relay.
That same 200 freestyle relay race against Hough was a confidence builder. The Vikings’ second 200 freestyle squad of Lauren Aprile, Alex Drye, Alex Santoli and captain Kiki Hooton came in second, making it the only relay race in which Hough or North Meck didn’t finish 1-2. Aprile and Santoli are also experienced swimmers who qualifyied for the 2010 state meet in the 500 freestyle event. Santoli – the sister of former Viking boys All-American Thomas Santoli, now competing at Stanford University – is also a versatile enough swimmer to fill in the vacant spot on the 400-yard free style relay against Hough.
A new approach
When you win 24 consecutive conference championships, the target is always on your back. It also means your program is probably full of elite athletes who are expected to meet the soaring expectations of a program’s past. That can make for some intense practice sessions and meets during the season.
That was certainly the case for the Vikings under Queen. Expectations were raised through the roof after the boys team won the 2008-09 state title and came in second the following season. The bar couldn’t have been set much higher.
But when first-year coach Erin Burns took over at North Meck last fall, she knew she couldn’t continue with the same intensity that made the team so successful in the past. Unlike the previous seasons, when year-round swimmers dominated the roster, many of this year’s Vikings were solely high school competitors. Some, such as I-MECK 4A Boys Soccer Player of the Year Patrick Harrow, joined the team to train out of season, and because of the team’s lack of experienced swimmers, is needed to contribute points at meets.
Because of that, Burns had to take a different approach this winter, one that wasn’t so intense. So instead of preaching a team-first approach, Burns decided to focus on (gasp) individual performances – an unconventional approach these days.
Burns knew she could count on experienced athletes, such as Poff and Cooper, to bring their “A” games each meet, but the first-year coach thought it was important for her younger swimmers to just focus on improving their personal times. She wanted them to make incremental strides during the season, so when the time comes, they’ll feel confident enough to do their best when the stakes are at their highest. It was a long-term theory that Burns hopes will pay off at the conference meet later this month.
“I knew about their history and that Hough had taken a lot of their talent,” said Burns. “I was cautious about approaching the season when we had to motivate non-year-round swimmers to collect points.
“A lot of the inexperienced swimmers are not used to the pressure of collecting points and we had to show them that a sixth- or seventh-place finish can still help us win meets. We focus on individual goals so they can see the results of their work. We want them to work on individual times to qualify for the (4A regional tournament).”
It’s common for a high school team’s top swimmers to spend most of their time training with their club teams, showing up as mercenaries at school meets, but this year’s Vikings have embraced Burn’s laid-back approach, serving as informal assistant coaches in the pool. Feeling empowered, the year-round swimmers have enjoyed the 2010-11 season, even though the team isn’t the powerhouse it use to be.
The year-round swimmers know next season, many of the top swimmers will graduate, and the number of girls swimmers on the roster is expected to drop down close to the number on this year’s boys squad. With one last chance to extend the streak, it’s almost like the Vikings girls are living in the moment, soaking up their last realistic championship chase.
“We went into this season with less pressure and we just decided to have fun with it,” said Aprile. “Last year was very serious and competitive because we had high expectations. Next year, we’re not going to be as good, so we want to end it on a good note. We want to be positive, have fun and really enjoy ourselves.”
And that’s not just one Viking’s perspective.
“We have a fun atmosphere,” said Poff, who will swim for Virginia’s James Madison University next year. “There’s not a lot of pressure and we are really close this year. We are always standing up and cheering for each other; no one is standing in the corner to themselves. It’s an enjoyable year and I will be sad when it comes to an end.”
It would be quite a feat if the Viking girls manage to extend their conference championship streak to 25 seasons with its new fun loving, mentoring approach. One wonders what would be the appropriate gift for such a quarter century of achievement.
For a 25th wedding anniversary the standard is silver, but on second thought, that wouldn’t be appropriate. After all, in swimming, silver is for second place.
And the Vikings want the gold.