The Rhinelander High School girls’ swim team reacts as Makenna Winnicki holds the Great Northern Conference championship trophy following the GNC meet at UW-Stevens Point Friday, Nov. 1. The Hodags won their first conference title in girls’ swimming since 2002. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Malia Francis swims the freestyle leg of the 200-yard individual medley during the Great Northern Conference meet at UW-Stevens Point Friday, Nov. 1. Francis set a conference record in the IM, as well as the 100 backstroke and was part of Rhinelander’s conference record-setting performance in the 200 medley relay.
11/5/2019 7:30:00 AM Conference conquerers RHS girls' swim team caps off perfect GNC season, claims first conference title since 2002
STEVENS POINT - The uptick in Rhinelander girls' swimming has seen a number of individual achievements over the last five years - multiple school records, all-conference award winners, state qualifiers and even a state champion. But there was one omission on the resume from a team standpoint - a Great Northern Conference title.
That void is no more. The Hodags finally checked that item off their list Friday night with four event wins, three conference records and a first-place finish at the GNC meet at UW-Stevens Point.
Thanks to a 7-0 record following the dual meet portion of the conference schedule, Rhinelander needed only to finish third or better to capture at least a share of the conference crown. The Hodags did better than that, leading the event wire-to-wire and holding off a hard-charging Lakeland by 21 points for the meet victory to complete a perfect conference season. It was Rhinelander's first conference championship in girls' swimming since taking the Wisconsin Valley Conference title back in 2002.
"It feels really good to see all the hard work we put in throughout all these years and see our dream finally come true," said junior Makenna Winnicki, who was part of a pair of conference runner-up teams prior to this season.
"That was what we wanted," added head coach Jenny Heck. "We knew it would be a tough battle. Lakeland's a fast team and we knew they would swim fast, and they did. We're lucky we came out on top."
Rhinelander started the night with a conference-record time of 1 minute, 53.37 seconds in the 200-yard medley relay with the team of Marisa McGuire, Malia Francis, Winnicki and Lisa Kennedy. Their names were featured prominently all night. Together they combined for 15 all-conference awards by placing in the top three in individual events or relays.
Francis took down a pair of GNC records herself, winning the 200 individual medley (2:09.98) and the 100 backstroke (57.21). Winnicki recorded Rhinelander's other victory, inching ahead of Lakeland's Naomi Hamerla over the final 25 yards to claim the 100 butterfly (1:01.49).
"I just tried to tough it out and practice what we had been doing during practice, working on my endurance and just finishing strong. I feel that really helped me out in the end," Winnicki said.
Kennedy was the runner-up in both the 200 IM and the 100 backstroke and the squad of McGuire, Francis, Winnicki and Noelle St. Pierre finished second in the 200 freestyle relay. Maria Heck added a runner-up finish in the 500 freestyle, St. Pierre and McGuire finished second and third in the 100 breaststroke and Rhinelander's 400 freestyle relay team of Heck, Sierra Woodford, Kennedy and St. Pierre finished second to give Rhinelander seven different swimmers who received all-conference honors.
"It was awesome to see all the hard work we put in and to see all the girls drop time was really great," Francis said.
The top eight finishers in each race made the podium. Maria Heck added a fourth-place finish in the 200 freestyle, St. Pierre was fourth in the 100 freestyle, Woodford was sixth in the 200 IM and Riley Miller took eighth in the 100 butterfly. Rhinelander also reached the podium with all three of its B relay entries. Woodford, Genna Fugle, Abigale Johnson and Heck took sixth in the 200 freestyle relay; Augusta Gruett, Ella Cordy, Miller and Jaylen Janssen were eighth in the 200 medley relay; Johnson, Fugle, Janssen and Gruett were eighth in the 400 freestyle relay.
"That's why we were able to win," Jenny Heck said. "It wasn't just getting a win it was getting the other places, through 12th. We're really happy that all the swimmers on our team were able to swim at the conference meet and the majority contributed points. If they didn't contribute points they were just great support and cheered on the team. I couldn't be more proud."
The Hodags finished the night with 309 points to edge out Lakeland's 288, Ladysmith finished third with 226 points and five-time defending conference champion Tomahawk finished fourth with 161 points. Medford, Colby/Abbotsford, Antigo and Mosinee rounded out the running order.
Rhinelander's opening win in the 200 medley relay smashed a three-year old conference record set by Tomahawk by 3.26 seconds. Much the way Rhinelander's boys team used the medley relay as a springboard last winter during its successful run to a third-place finish in the state, the Hodag girls said the medley set the tone Friday for the rest of the competition.
"Winning that first 200 medley relay, I've been waiting all throughout high school for that to happen and to get a conference record too was the best. To start off the night with a win, it showed that we were here to take the conference," Kennedy said.
Rhinelander was able to score big points in a number of events, perhaps none more so than the 200 IM and the 100 backstroke where Francis and Kennedy finished 1-2.
"It was so fun to go 1-2 with Lisa," Francis said. "To be able to touch the wall and see that I had a teammate who was right behind me. It was really cool."
Francis had the field covered in both races. She took down the conference record in the IM by 6.69 seconds and the record in the backstroke by 2.80 seconds. Kennedy put the pedal down to easily claim the runner-up spot in both events. She was 4.54 seconds ahead of Ladysmith's Lacey Fuse in the IM and 2.96 seconds better than third-place Heather Arlen of Antigo in the backstroke.
Rhinelander was not the only school taking down conference records on Friday. Reigning GNC swimmer of the year Kylee Theiler from Tomahawk took down two more conference records in her final conference meet with wins in the 100 freestyle (53.70) and 200 freestyle (1:57.23). Both records were previously held by Rhinelander's Kiah Francis.
Lakeland also broke a conference record in the 200 freestyle relay with a time of 1:40.71. The T-Birds, needing to win the meet and have Rhinelander finish third or worse to earn at least a share of the conference crown, seemed to throw their best at this meet. The team dropped more than four seconds from their seed time in the 200 free relay and a whopping 13 seconds in their winning 400 free relay.
The Hodags got a shot in the arm as senior Riley Miller, who missed the majority of the conference season due to injury, returned to the lineup on Friday. Swimming her best stroke, butterfly, Miller reached the podium twice as part of the team's B 200 medley relay and in the 100 butterfly.
"She was at every practice and supported the team. Being a captain, she just continued being a great leader," coach Heck said. "She wasn't sure if she was going to have the endurance to be able to do what she was able to do. We only put her in two events because we weren't sure how her endurance would be. She gave it her all and we were really proud of Riley."
The Hodags now head to sectionals where they will look to continue their string of four straight years with at least one state qualifier.
Sectionals this year move from UW-Stevens Point to Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School. The meet gets underway at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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