The Rhinelander High School girls’ swim team celebrates with the WIAA Division 2 sectional championship plaque following a meet in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Nov. 9. Rhinelander edged Rice Lake by one point to claim its first sectional title in girls’ swimming since 1994. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Malia Francis competes in the 100-yard backstroke during a WIAA Division 2 sectional girls’ swim meet in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Nov. 9. Francis won the race in a school-record time of 56.43 seconds to qualify for the WIAA state meet this coming Friday in Madison. Francis also qualified in three other events for the Hodags. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
11/12/2019 7:30:00 AM Sectional squeaker Hodags edge Rice Lake by one point for sectional crown, send seven entries to state swim meet
WISCONSIN RAPIDS - Rhinelander's 400-yard freestyle relay touched the wall in seventh place and then the longest five minutes of the Rhinelander High School girls' swim season began.
The Hodags entered the final race of Saturday's WIAA Division 2 sectional in Wisconsin Rapids with a nine-point lead over Rice Lake but one question was left unanswered - had they done enough to win their first sectional title since 1994?
Finally, when Rice Lake was announced in second place overall, the Hodags had their answer. The seventh-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay was enough to claim the sectional title by one point in a nail-biting finish that saw the top four teams in the 14-team meet separated by only seven points.
"You cannot be closer than that and, wow, no, I can't believe it," coach Jenny Heck said. "That was so awesome. How exciting. It was very close. We didn't know, of course, until the very end, that last relay. We're so delighted it came out the way it did."
Rhinelander won five events and will send seven entries to the WIAA Division 2 state meet in Madison this Friday but spent most of Saturday's competition in catch-up mode because of the points Big Rivers Conference schools Rice Lake and River Falls scored in the sectional diving competition held one night earlier.
The Hodags took the lead for the first time thanks to a 3-8 finish in the 100-yard breaststroke with Noelle St. Pierre and Marisa McGuire. That led to a number-crunching scenario entering the 400 freestyle relay where Rhinelander was seeded seventh, River Falls second and Rice Lake third. If either River Falls or Rice Lake would have improved its position by one spot, or if Rhinelander had not maintained its seventh seed, the sectional title would have gone elsewhere.
Wausau East, seeded fourth, helped the Hodags' cause by taking an early lead and going wall-to-wall for the win over top-seeded Lakeland, which placed second.
Rice Lake was a distant third to the frontrunners with River Falls in fourth. Meanwhile, Rhinelander was jockeying for fifth in the final leg of the relay. Though the team of Maria Heck, Genna Fugle, Sierra Woodford and McGuire faded to seventh, they finished more than six seconds ahead of eighth-place Merrill, which was enough to get the job done.
"Those girls went after that last relay," Jenny Heck said. "Their goal was to move up a spot. They at least maintained and they all had awesome splits. They all were under a minute for the first time this year. It was so great, I couldn't have asked for a better finish."
Wausau East, with its 400 freestyle relay win, moved into third, 6 1/2 points behind Rhinelander. River Falls, which amassed a whopping 64 points in the diving competition, finished fourth, seven points behind the Hodags.
The 400 freestyle relay was the only Rhinelander relay not to qualify for state, but it was arguably the most important finish of the day. The group of Makenna Winnicki, Malia Francis, Lisa Kennedy and Noelle St. Pierre won the 200 medley relay at the start of the day to automatically make it to state. The foursome's fourth-place finish in the 200 freestyle relay was fast enough to earn an at large bid, but the four were relegated to the role of spectators as Rhinelander's sectional title hopes hung in the balance.
"We were just standing there hoping they could pull it off and they really held it together, were able to place really well in that last heat. It was awesome, really stressful though," Francis said.
The Hodags knocked down three varsity records on Saturday, beginning with a blistering time of 1 minute, 49.65 seconds in the 200 medley relay that took down a record that had stood for 24 years by 2.43 seconds.
"To have that right off the bat, I would have been happy with a 1:50 and they went a 1:49, varsity record, it was great. It just set the tone for a fast meet," Jenny Heck said.
Added St. Pierre, who swam the anchor leg for that event, "I think that set us up for the rest of the meet and gave us a lot of confidence through all the rest of our events."
Francis then lowered her own school records in both the 100 butterfly (57.54) and the 100 backstroke (56.43) as she won both events with ease.
"I went a best split in my breaststroke (during the medley relay). That gave me a lot of confidence going into the fly," Francis said. "I knew I had the front end speed and I was able to take it out really fast and hold in the back half. Then that was one of my best times in the 100 back. I felt great during that one. I tried to push my underwaters and my turns. I think it worked out really well."
Winnicki added sectional titles in 200 individual medley and the 500 freestyle. Winnicki was seeded second behind River Falls' Sydney Flemming in the IM, but inched ahead in the breaststroke leg to post a time of 2:13.60 and win by 1.03 seconds. Winnicki was also seeded second in the 500 freestyle, but beat her seed time by more than 11 seconds to hit the wall at 5:19.71 and beat Merrill's Trinity Kanitz by 2.46 seconds for the win.
"Makenna was huge today, not being scheduled to win and taking the firsts. Those points were very critical," Jenny Heck said. "She was ready to swim fast. It was kind of her time. Hopefully next week, she'll swim a little bit faster than that, too."
Said Winnicki, "It was really nerve-racking going into it knowing I was seeded second, but I had confidence in my training throughout the whole three months (of the season). I was just really nervous while I was swimming, but I knew all that training would come together at the end and I'm really proud of how I placed."
The team of Winnicki, Francis, Kennedy and St. Pierre (1:41.27) were only fourth-best in a blisteringly fast 200 freestyle relay race won by Rice Lake (1:40.24), but their team was eighth-fastest overall in the state. The top seven finishers in the event in the Rapids sectional were all among the top 16 times statewide and are on their way to Madison.
"They all swam great splits. There wasn't a weak link. We'll make sure we'll get in there for state and worry about things from there," coach Heck said.
Kennedy was seeded second in the 100 backstroke and, though she finished fourth (1:00.18), her time was 11th-fastest in the state to get her back to the UW-Natatorium after failing to qualify for state last year as a sophomore.
"I remember making it freshman year in the 200 medley relay and then missing it by one place last year was really kind of heartbreaking," she said. "Coming back with a really good seed time, we have a chance to probably podium at state. That's going to be really awesome."
St. Pierre barely missed qualifying in the 100 breaststroke. She was the first swimmer out in the event as her time of 1:10.94 was 17th fastest, a mere 0.18 seconds off the cutline.
Kennedy added a fourth-place finish in the 200 IM. Her time of 2:19.94 was roughly 2.4 seconds off state-qualifying pace. Maria Heck finished seventh in the 500 freestyle, St. Pierre took eighth in the 100 freestyle and McGuire was eighth in the 100 breaststroke.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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