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December 12, 2019

Rhinelander’s Malia Francis inches past Tomahawk’s Molly Mott in the first length of the 100-yard breaststroke during a Great Northern Conference girls’ swimming dual at the Heck Family Community Pool Thursday, Oct. 17. Rhinelander won nine of 11 events as it moved to a perfect 7-0 in GNC duals with a 109-61 victory over the Hatchets. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Malia Francis inches past Tomahawk’s Molly Mott in the first length of the 100-yard breaststroke during a Great Northern Conference girls’ swimming dual at the Heck Family Community Pool Thursday, Oct. 17. Rhinelander won nine of 11 events as it moved to a perfect 7-0 in GNC duals with a 109-61 victory over the Hatchets. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
10/19/2019 7:30:00 AM
Hodags rout defending GNC swim champion Hatchets

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor

The sports cliche goes, to be the best you must beat the best. In that vein the Great Northern Conference girls' swimming torch may have been passed from one school to another on Thursday night.

Rhinelander won nine events and vanquished five-time defending GNC champion Tomahawk 109-61 at the Heck Family Community Pool. The win capped off a perfect 7-0 season in conference duals for the Hodags and put Rhinelander in the driver's seat to claim its first girls' swimming conference title since 2002 when the conference meet is staged in two weeks' time.

"It's been a long time and I think we were ready," coach Jenny Heck said. "The girls were really excited. Tomahawk's a great team and they still have some great swimmers."

Tomahawk may still have the best swimmer in the conference in senior Kylee Theiler, who took down a Heck Pool record on Thursday night, but the Hodags displayed much greater depth than the Hatchets.

The only events the Hodags lost were the two that saw Theiler compete as an individual.

Even when Theiler opened up a 1.95-second lead in the first leg of the 200-yard freestyle relay, Lisa Kennedy erased that margin. She gave Rhinelander the lead in the second leg and the Hodags cruised to more than a four-second win in the event. Theiler swam the anchor leg for the Hatchets in the 400 freestyle relay, but even a 54.55-second split was not nearly enough to erase the 8.60-second deficit she faced when entering the water.

Rhinelander took all three relay races on Thursday. Kennedy, Malia Francis, Makenna Winnicki and Marisa McGuire opened with a win in the 200 medley (1:54.81); Winnicki, Kennedy, Francis and Noelle St. Pierre took the 200 freestyle relay (1:44.02); Maria Heck, Sierra Woodford, McGuire and St. Pierre took the 400 freestyle relay (3:59.29).

"Our goal was to win all three relays. We weren't sure we'd be able to. That was really exciting," coach Heck said. "We were going for some fast splits. We wanted kids to break 30 (seconds) in the 50, kids to break a minute in the 100. They did and it was really fun. When we're training this hard and swimming this fast, that makes me really happy."

Rhinelander took a shot at a couple of pool records Thursday night and came up just short. The winning time in the 200 medley relay was 0.35 seconds off the Heck Pool mark the team set earlier this season. Francis won the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:10.14, 0.24 seconds behind the record set by her sister Kiah in 2016.

Later in the evening, Francis posted a 24.47-second split in the 200 freestyle relay. The time is significant because it matches the school record in the 50 freestyle set by Lindsay Byrka in 1993, though it doesn't officially count in the record books because it occurred in a relay and not the actual 50 freestyle.

"That was a great swim for her. We want to go after that record. This meet wasn't the night to do it, but it will come," coach Heck said. "We're excited and we're proud of Malia. She had another great night of swimming."

Rhinelander led Tomahawk by only two points following the first two races of the night, but the Hodags took control moments later. Francis and Kennedy went 1-2 in the 200 IM, followed by a 1-2 finish by St. Pierre and McGuire to give Rhinelander a 39-23 lead at intermission. The Hodags pulled away from there as Tomahawk failed to outpoint Rhinelander in any event.

"I think that just gave the kids excitement and momentum. They know that they can believe that they can do it to," coach Heck said of the boost the Hodags received before intermission. "I think they were even more excited about their times - a lot of drops from seniors to freshmen. I thought that was just really great."

Winnicki (1:02.09) and Kennedy added a 1-2 finish in the 100 backstroke later in the program that officially clinched the dual for the Hodags. Winnicki added a win in the 100 butterfly (1:02.29), Maria Heck won the 500 freestyle (5:52.18) and Francis claimed the 100 breaststroke (1:09.71).

"I was happy with Makenna and Lisa's backstroke. Those were good times. They are in position to do really well for end of season," coach Heck said.

Theiler won the 200 freestyle for Tomahawk (1:57.28) and went 53.04 in the 100 freestyle to break a Heck Pool record of 54.00 set by Wisconsin Rapids' Becca Weiland in 2008. Maria Heck and St. Pierre scored runner-up finishes for the Hodags, respectively, in those events.

Woodford added a third-place finish in the 200 freestyle and the 100 butterfly, McGuire was third in the 100 freestyle, Gussie Gruett placed third in the 500 freestyle, Ella Cordy finished third in the 100 breaststroke and Rhinelander added third-place finishes with their B entries in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

The win did not clinch the GNC title for Rhinelander, but put the Hodags in a commanding position for their first conference title in 17 years. With two points for each conference win, and two points per final team position at the GNC meet, the Hodags can clinch at least a share of the conference title by finishing second or better at the conference meet Nov. 1 in Stevens Point.

That could be third or better, pending the outcome of the dual between Lakeland (5-1) and Ladysmith (4-2), which had not been reported as of deadline.

In celebration of an undefeated conference dual season, the Rhinelander seniors baited coach Heck into thinking she was taking a picture with them poolside at the end of the meet, only to wind up getting thrown in the pool instead.

"I trusted those girls. I said all those nice things about them (during the senior night program) and what did they do? They go throw me in the pool," Heck said with a wry smile afterward. "We had a great meet. We had a great time. It was a lot of fun and I guess it's deserving (to be thrown in the pool)."

Rhinelander will not compete again until the GNCs in two weeks' time. Heck said there is still plenty of work to do in the interim.

"I'm appreciative of this week off so we can focus on the things we need to do," she said. "There is a lot of detail stuff that just takes time and not having a meet Thursday next week will give us a little more time to work on the specifics we need to focus on."

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at

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