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December 6, 2019

Rhinelander High School girls’ swim coach Jenny Heck instructs her team during intermission of the Great Northern Conference meet in Stevens Point Friday, Nov. 1. Rhinelander has high hopes entering today’s sectional meet in Wisconsin Rapids. The Hodags are projected to qualify for the WIAA state meet in a number of events and projected to win the sectional title, based on psych sheets released by the WIAA on Tuesday. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander High School girls’ swim coach Jenny Heck instructs her team during intermission of the Great Northern Conference meet in Stevens Point Friday, Nov. 1. Rhinelander has high hopes entering today’s sectional meet in Wisconsin Rapids. The Hodags are projected to qualify for the WIAA state meet in a number of events and projected to win the sectional title, based on psych sheets released by the WIAA on Tuesday. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
11/9/2019 7:31:00 AM
Hodag swim enters sectionals with high hopes

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor

Last year, Makenna Winnicki was alone at the UW Natatorium in the WIAA state girls' swim meet. This year, the goal is to make sure whichever Hodags make it down to state have plenty of company.

Rhinelander is in good position to do just that this afternoon as it competes in a 14-team Division 2 sectional in Wisconsin Rapids.

The psych sheets for the sectional round were released by the WIAA on Tuesday and the info, which shows where Rhinelander will be seeded for today's meet, indicates that the Hodags could be in for a big day. Not only are the Hodags currently projected to qualify for state in seven different events, they Rhinelander is projected to win today's sectional meet, edging out last year's sectional champ Merrill.

"We are so excited and ready for a chance to show what we have been so diligently preparing for," Hodag coach Jenny Heck said. "Not just this year but from years of preparation."

The psych sheets show all the entries in each sectional across the state, as well as each entry's fastest time of the season. That's important in a couple of ways. Individually, the four Division 2 sectional champions, plus the next 12 fastest times statewide, in each event will qualify for the state meet next Friday in Madison. The psych sheets can help determine who's projected to be in the field, who's on the bubble and who will have to improve significantly to crash the state party. From a team standpoint, the psych sheet can be used to simulate the sectional meet and figure out which teams have a shot at the sectional crown.

The numbers show well for Rhinelander but, as Heck warned, the sheets are not gospel. A lot can happen once the swimmers hit the water on Saturday. The biggest variables are how much has each team tapered prior to sectionals, how well will each athlete respond to the taper and how teams chose to align their relay events. It's not uncommon to see significant time drops at sectionals, nor is it uncommon to see times go up slightly for those who have tapered too soon.

"The psych sheets really don't mean a lot. They give you a small idea of what it could be, but everyone there is going to swim fast," Heck said. "Times there are going to be much different than is what's on that psych sheet. The girls know that they're going to have to swim fast just to maintain (their seed), and even faster if they want to have that state qualifying time or be in the top 16. They're going to have to go faster than the seed."

Regardless, Heck said the psych sheet numbers help the swimmers envision who they are swimming against and what they may have to do in the water to be successful. That data is key, especially to some of the Hodags' top swimmers.

"We're kind of nerds when it comes to the sport of swimming," junior Lisa Kennedy said after last Friday's Great Northern Conference meet, admitting that she had already looked at the Wisconsin Valley Conference meet results to get a glance at two teams in today's sectional field - Merrill and Wausau East. "Lots of our times match up pretty well with their times, which is really cool coming from a Division 2 conference. We're matching up and even beating some of the winning times from the Valley Conference. A few teams from the Valley Conference are going to be in our sectional. That gives us a lot of confidence going into sectionals."

Individually, the numbers show sophomore Malia Francis will be in the hunt to become the third member of her family to win a WIAA state title - joining her older siblings Kiah and Nolan. Francis enters as not only the top seed in the sectional, but in all of D2 in both the 100-yard butterfly (57.73 seconds) and the 100 backstroke (57.00). Francis is 0.62 seconds ahead of Whitnall sophomore Rachel Lenz for the top time in the butterfly. Two other sophomores, McFarland's Mara Freeman and Madison Edgewood's Anna teDuits, are within 0.36 seconds of Francis' top time in the backstroke.

Francis also had the top time in D2 during the regular season in the 200 individual medley, according to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association, but opted for the shorter races instead. That leaves two events open for her to compete on relay entries.

"It was a matter of what "It was a matter of what she wanted to attack what she felt ready for and what she thought she could do the best in, and that was her decision," Heck said.

The Hodags are near the top of the sectional in several other individual events.

Winnicki, who has qualified for state each of the last two years in the 500 freestyle, is back in that event. She's seeded second in the sectional, and 14th statewide with a time of 5:30.96, which is faster than the state qualifying time in the event last year (5:31.13). Winnicki is also the second seed in the 200 IM (2:17.67), where she's ranked 11th overall in D2. Kennedy is seeded third in the event (2:21.06), but sits just outside the state-qualifying bubble at 17th overall.

"Makenna had a fast midseason time (in the IM) and she has great potential for the state meet," Heck said. "Lisa had a great time last weekend at the conference meet. I think both of those girls can come down. I think it will be a good race."

Kennedy is also looking to qualify in the backstroke and is set up in good position in the event. She's seeded , seeded second behind Francis in the sectional and eighth overall in D2 (1:01.91).

Sophomore Noelle St. Pierre also has aspirations of qualifying individually. She's currently third in the second, and 14th overall, in the 100 breaststroke (1:11.34). She's seventh in the second, and 22nd overall, in the 100 freestyle (56.18), only 0.46 sec

The Hodags are seeded No. 1 in the sectional, and seventh statewide, in the 200 medley relay (1:53.37). Though the Hodags are seeded only fourth in the sectional in the 200 freestyle relay (1:42.83), their time is the sixth fastest in the state.

"We want to get those relays down to state," Heck said. "That makes the whole state meet a completely different feel when you get the relays down there. We have to go a couple seconds faster. We're not going to settle just for being where we're at. We want to improve and move up."

While a state meet berth will be a goal for a number of Rhinelander's sectional swimmers, every point will matter for the team, which has a legitimate shot at winning the sectional title. The Hodags are projected to score 273 points in the meet, which would beat out Merrill by 22 points. Rice Lake (237), Wausau East (225) and Lakeland (223) round out the projected top five, which does not factor in the diving competition, where no best performances are listed by the WIAA. Rice Lake is the only school in the top five that has a diver competing in sectionals and would not score enough points in the event to overtake Rhinelander in the projections.

"We put our best lineup together and made some last minute changes in order to capitalize on as many points as possible," Heck said. "I think everyone here has potential to be top 16 in their events. That's a great team goal. Then, just to get the final best times of the season, even if they do not move on to state."

All eight Great Northern Conference schools are in today's field.

The other schools in attendance will be Menomonie, Merrill, River Falls, Rice Lake and Wittenberg-Birnamwood.

This year's D2 sectional meet will be held at the recently renovated pool at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School.

It will mark the first time in more than a decade that the Hodags have not competed at UW-Stevens Point for a sectional meet.

"I haven't been down to the Rapids pool. I've heard its fast. It's a new pool and I think our girls are excited to be there. I think we're ready,"

The swimming portion of the sectional meet is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at

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