In this Oct. 17, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Malia Francis swims butterfly during a Great Northern Conference dual meet against Tomahawk at the Heck Family Community Pool. Francis has the fastest time in the GNC in five indviduals events this season — and the second fastest time in the other three. At 7-0, the Hodags hold a four-point lead over Ladysmith, Lakeland and Medford entering tonight’s GNC meet in Stevens Point. The Hodags will win their first conference title in girls’ swimming since 2002 if they finishing third or better in tonight’s meet. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
10/31/2019 7:31:00 AM RHS swimmers set sights on first conference title since 2002
The last time the Rhinelander High School girls' swim team won a conference title the majority of this year's Hodag squad had not been born and those who had arrived were in diapers.
It's been a long dry spell for the Hodags - 17 years to be exact - but it could all come to an end tomorrow night in Stevens Point in the Great Northern Conference meet hosted by Medford.
"I keep telling the kids it's been a long time," coach Jenny Heck said. "I know they are excited. They should be really proud to be part of such a great team. We just got to keep taking one day at a time, one meet at a time and hopefully, tomorrow's our time."
Rhinelander is the team to beat following a 7-0 conference dual season that has given the team a four-point advantage over a three-way tie between Ladysmith, Lakeland and Medford (5-2). With two points per position on the line based on the final outcome of tomorrow night's meet (16 for first, 14 for second, 12 for third, etc.), Rhinelander does not need to win the conference meet to win the conference title outright. Second place would be good enough in that regard, and a third-place finish would ensure at least a share of the conference crown.
But Rhinelander and coach Heck aren't going into tomorrow night's meet looking for second.
"I don't want to rely on that," Heck said. "It's going to be a tough meet. The relays are going to be really close. There will be some individual events that are really close. We don't know where they are going to put some of their swimmers. We just hope it matches up well and we come out on top."
Some storylines to follow as the Hodags hit the UW-Stevens Point pool at 5 p.m. tomorrow.
Half the battle at conference is determining how to set the lineup. That's a virtual chess match between coaches based on who they suspect will compete in which events for the other teams. At conference, each squad is allowed 24 entries in the eight individual races, along with three entries per relay, provided a swimmer competes in no more than four events during the meet.
In theory, Rhinelander could stack its lineup in a single event - the Hodags have the top three times on the Great Northern Conference honor roll in the 100 backstroke with Malia Francis, Makenna Winnicki and Lisa Kennedy - or they could spread the wealth around in an effort to win as many individual events as possible.
Though each team's lineup was to be submitted to the GNC by noon Tuesday, Heck offered very few clues as to what her lineup will look like tomorrow night, other than that she had some "sleepless nights" pondering the correct order.
"You want to do what's best for everyone and maximize those points," she said. "The goal is to get an many points as possible and to get each swimmer to try to point. You don't know what the other teams are going to put their swimmers in. It's a little bit of a game, but I think I'm confident in our lineup. We worked hard at it. We had lots of discussion and I think we're ready."
The conference honor roll displays the top eight times in the conference in each event over the course of the dual meet season. The common thread is Francis, who is shown first or second in all eight individual events. The Hodags also have the fastest time in the conference in all three relay races - which Francis involved in each one.
The most intriguing matchup would take place if Francis and reigning GNC swimmer of the year, Kylee Theiler of Tomahawk, are matched together at any point on Friday. Theiler holds the top times in the three events that Francis doesn't - the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyle - though Francis has Theiler edged in the 100 butterfly, 500 freestyle and 100 breaststroke.
The names of Rhinelander swimmers take up a number of spots on the honor roll. Makenna Winnicki is shown second behind Francis in the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke, as well as third in the 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 500 freestyle. Noelle St. Pierre appears third in the 100 breaststroke, fourth in the 100 freestyle, fifth in the 200 freestyle and 200 IM and sixth in the 50 freestyle and 500 freestyle. Lisa Kennedy ranks third in the 100 backstroke, fourth in the 200 IM and eighth in the 100 butterfly. Maria Heck ranks seventh in both the 200 and 500 freestyle.
While Theiler may be the most decorated swimmer the Hodags will have to face on Friday, her Hatchets sit fifth in the conference standings (3-4), meaning that Tomahawk's run of five straight conference titles is all but mathematically over.
Of the three teams in second, Lakeland appears to matchup best against the Hodags. The T-Birds lost by 18 to Rhinelander in dual meet competition, compared to Rhinelander's 40-point margin of victory over Ladysmith and 50-point win over Medford. Lakeland also has the second-fastest time in each of the three relays. The T-Birds mark in the 200 freestyle relay is only 0.85 seconds slower than Rhinelander's.
"Lakeland and Ladysmith have some really fast relays," Heck said. "Our fly, back and breast are pretty solid. There are some fast freestylers in the conference. We have fast freestylers too, but we can only swim two individual events. That's what makes it challenging."
While Rhinelander has a number of swimmers who can contend for individual conference titles, depth will also be a key tomorrow night. The first 12 finishers in each race will receive points. Sixteen points are awarded for first all the way down to one point for 12th - with points doubled in relay races.
"That's going to be very, very important for the results for Friday," Heck said. "We have some top, great swimmers, but we need those B swimmers, those kids placing in the top 12. Those all score points. Those kids need to step up and it's their time to shine on Friday."
Ready and rested?
The Hodags have not competed since defeating Tomahawk 109-61 on Oct. 17. That will be a 15-day layoff by the time Rhinelander enters the pool tomorrow night. Heck said a week of practice without a meet has been beneficial to her squad.
"It's been nice to have some time to train and to focus on what we'll be swimming on conference and getting ready for the rest of the season," she said.
The Hodags are ready, but they are not necessarily rested. With several of Rhinelander's top swimmers striving for fast times at next week's sectionals and, potentially, the following week's WIAA state meet, a number of swimmers have yet to taper their training - a time-shaving measure to produce the fastest times at the most important races.
"We have different groups right now," Heck said. "Some kids are resting a little more than other kids. Everyone gets to swim at the conference meet. That's a great opportunity. Everyone gets to compete. Some kids will be resting more here. Some kids haven't rested much at all and some kids are kind of in between. We have some different group going. It depends on individual goals at this point."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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