January 28, 2012
By Robert Niedzwiecki
The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER- After taking a look at the printout of the final results, Sherando coach Joe Knight couldn't help but say, "Oh my God, three points."

Finally, no one had to wonder if the Warriors girls' swimming team still had what it took to maintain their ironclad grip on the Northwestern District meet title.

Sherando won its third straight meet title to go along with its three straight regular season titles Friday night at Jim Barnett Park's War Memorial Building, and it did so in thrilling fashion.

Trailing James Wood by one heading into the meet-concluding 400-meter freestyle relay, the Warriors took second and the Colonels took fourth to give Sherando a 125-122 victory over James Wood and finish off a night of repeats.

The Millbrook boys won their second straight district meet title, scoring 155 points to Handley's 145.

Given the Colonels' girls' talent and the losses suffered by Sherando - a contingent that includes two-time Winchester Star Swimmer of the Year Megan De Jong, who did not come out for the team this year - there was reason to think there might be a changing of the guard. But Sherando always believed in itself.

"I think we just capped off a tremendous season," Knight said. "It's a close-knit group of kids and they've had a lot of fun this year.

"I think one of the keys to our success all year was the depth of our team. Without those kids who swam fifth, sixth, seventh and got those critical points, this wouldn't have happened tonight."

And determination shouldn't be forgotten in the Warriors' case either.

Knight said Alexis English hurt herself during Wednesday's dual meet against James Wood when her foot struck the starting platform in the breaststroke, and he wasn't sure if she would compete Friday.

But she had two top-three individual finishes, and then she started the 400 free relay with a scintillating leg that had Sherando in first at that point. The Warriors might not have won, but it was a tone-setting performance that enabled Sherando to drop 10 seconds from its previous best and beat James Wood. "I knew it was going to be hard for us to win," said Sherando sophomore Kelsey Dingman. "I'm proud of us."

Dingman, who also swam on the 400 free relay, played just as big a role as anyone on the Warriors in the victory. She helped make up a deficit that allowed Sherando to edge Millbrook for second in the 200 medley relay and edged out James Wood's Alex Lew with a late surge in the last 10 meters to win both the 50 free (28.62 to Lew's 28.67) and 100 free (1:03.73 to 1:04.16).

"I don't think I ever tried that hard in the 100 free before," said Dingman, who had Sherando's only two event wins all evening. "It hurt so bad."

For James Wood coach Kristy Hartbauer, it wasn't easy to come so close to what would have been the team's first district title in at least 10 years.

"We did the math beforehand, and we kind of knew where we stood," she said. "We knew the girls gave it their best effort, and we're really proud of them for everything they've accomplished this season."

James Wood won five of the 11 events, more than any other team. The most impressive win probably came from senior Kaye Whitacre, who did not get the state cut in the 100 breaststroke she desired but did edge defending champion Katie Kozlowski of Millbrook.

Whitacre went out hard and built up a five-meter lead heading into the final 25 meters, but a furious Kozlowski rally had the building roaring. Whitacre touched the wall just in time though, recording a time of 1:22.20 to Kozlowski's 1:22.21.

"Talking to her beforehand, I knew what her strategy was, and I was kind of nervous because normally she has trouble coming home that second 50," Hartbauer said. "She kept it together just enough to touch her out. I know she's excited, and I know they'll continue to push each other at regionals.

Freshman Sara Fergus won the 100 butterfly in 1:12.94 and 400 free in 5:04.86, both season-best times, for James Wood.

"I'm proud," she said. "I've been doing better than I thought I could do this year."

The Colonels also won the 200 medley relay (2:15.48) and the 200 free relay (2:02.92).

As for the rest of the girls' meet, Handley was third with 108 points and Millbrook was fourth with 103.

Winners for Handley were sophomore Liz Grove (200 IM in 2:36.99 and 100 backstroke in 1:13.57), Sparkle Kitchin (200 free in 2:22.80) and the 400 free relay (4:29.55).

The Millbrook boys, who like the Sherando girls were also regular season champions, also relied on their depth to win a title. But the Pioneers also relied on their strength at the top, winning seven of 11 events.

"What we ended up doing tonight was a manifestation of what we've been doing all season," said Millbrook senior Thomas Northrup, who captured both the 200 individual medley (2:25.34) and the 100 butterfly (1:05.66). "We really need to pat ourselves on the back.

"Everybody was pushing to get high places and pushing to get places that they weren't necessarily seeded as. They wanted to move up two, three places."

Millbrook coach Eileen Span, who at the end of the meet was searching for dry clothes after being pushed by her swimmers into the pool, said she couldn't have been more impressed with the work ethic and focus the Pioneers displayed this year.

"I think the boys had to step up their practices," Span said. "The three and a half hours we had per week, we had to focus on what needed to be done to do well in those different events.

"I knew the boys were doing well, but I knew boys on the other teams were doing well also. There was never really a moment where we could just be calm about it. We knew we had to do what we had to do."

Span's son Michael was also instrumental in the win, taking first in the 200 free (2:15.44) and 100 backstroke (1:09.19). Alex Morrow took the 400 free (4:55.68) and Nick Patton the 100 breaststroke (1:17.05). Millbrook also won the 200 medley relay (2:02.18).

In the boys' meet, Sherando was third with 95 points and James Wood was fourth with 63.

Handley won the other four boys' events, with Taylor Watts getting state times to take the 50 free (25.97) and 100 free (57.02). The Judges took the 200 free relay in a state time of 1:46.23 and the 400 free relay in 4:04.20.

Those results headlined an effort that was much better than Handley coach Tag Grove was expecting.

"I was real pleased," Grove said. "We had some huge time drops.

"As far as the guys go, I scored it [Thursday] night, and I'd thought we'd be down 40 points [to Millbrook], and it was a 10-point meet, so that's some really good swimming by the guys.

"I kind of felt like we'd be second at the beginning of the year. but we pushed them and gave them a run for their money."

Watts was one of only three individuals to get state times Friday, and the only one who hadn't previously done so. After Watts finished his 50 free, the timekeeper gave Watts' mom a thumbs-up, eliciting a yell of joy from her.

Later, Watts gave his father a high five after getting his state time in the 100 free.

"It's a relief," said Watts, who only previously qualified for states in his career with a relay. "Relays make it fun, but it's a good feeling to make your own times."

The top five individuals and top two relays in each event qualified for next week's Region II meet in Warrenton. For more results see Monday's edition.

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