The Rhinelander High School girls’ swim team’s state qualifiers — from left to right, Lisa Kennedy, Malia Francis, Makenna Winnicki and Noelle St. Pierre — pose with the sectional championship plaque following a WIAA Division 2 sectional swim meet in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Nov. 9. The four qualified in seven different events in the state meet, which will be held this Friday at the UW-Natatorium in Madison. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Malia Francis swims in the 100-yard butterfly during a WIAA Division 2 sectional girls’ swim meet in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Nov. 9. Francis is the top seed in the 100 butterfly for the WIAA state meet with a sectional time of 57.54 seconds. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
11/14/2019 7:30:00 AM Hodag swimmers seek next step at state
Throughout the long history of Rhinelander High School swimming there has rarely been a question of if the Hodags would send someone to the WIAA state meet.
The questions usually were how many swimmers would the team send and would they finish on the podium or better?
Following some lean years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, those expectations have returned for the Hodag swimmers. The boys' squad set the tone earlier this year with a third-place finish and two individual state titles at the WIAA Division 2 meet. The Hodag girls' are eager to write their own legacy on Friday night in Madison.
The Hodags have seven entries in state events - their highest total since online records of state tournament results were kept beginning in 1999. The core four swimmers of Malia Francis, Makenna Winnicki, Lisa Kennedy and Noelle St. Pierre aren't satisfied with simply qualifying for state. They sit seeded in the top eight in six of their seven entries. Finishing in the top six and reaching the podium in multiple events is a realistic expectation.
"When it becomes not a hope that you're at state, but a plan that you're going to be at state - it's just a matter of in what and how many you can bring - I think that's what we really are striving for," coach Jenny Heck said. "I think it needs to be part of the culture that we are a fast team and we belong down south."
2019 marks the sixth straight season the Hodags have sent at least one swimmer to state on the girls' side. Winnicki is the most experience of the trio. She is making her third state appearance after qualifying the last two years as a freshman and a sophomore.
"You just have to focus on not cracking under the pressure of being at the state meet and having so many people watching you," Winnicki said of the state atmosphere. "I think, most importantly, not letting one race get to your head if you don't swim as well as you want. You have other teammates there and other events to swim. I think you have to keep your head up for that and keep a positive attitude the whole time."
Winnicki is swimming a four-event program at state, as is sophomore Malia Francis who qualified first in the D2 in the 100-yard butterfly and second in the 100 backstroke. Of course, a fast Francis is nothing new when it comes to the UW-Natatorium. Malia's older siblings, Kiah and Nolan, combined for four first-place and four runner-up finishes between them in their high school swimming careers.
"With Kiah and Nolan going to state I've seen it for quite a few years," said Malia Francis, who competed exclusively on the club circuit as a freshman before joining the Hodags this fall. "I've kind of been in the background watching. I kind of see how it goes. I'm excited to try to do what they've done."
Kennedy qualified in an individual event for the first time thanks to her fourth-place finish in the 100 backstroke last Saturday at a sectional meet in Wisconsin Rapids. Her only prior experience at state was as a member of the team's 200 medley relay as a freshman.
"I just remember right after the national anthem we were getting in the water and it was so shocking," she said. "I don't know. It was a big jump swimming in front of that many people. The pool in Madison, I don't know, you can see everybody right above the pool and it's so nerve-racking, but it's also really cool."
St. Pierre, who is scheduled to swim a leg of both the 200 medley and freestyle relays, is the closest thing to a rookie in the group, making her first trip to Madison as a competitor.
Training this week has been light to ensure the Hodags are as fresh as possible on Friday night. For as fast as the team was on Saturday - the team set three varsity records - Heck said she knows the team will have to improve even more to maintain or improve their positions at state.
"They have some left to drop," she said. "Once you get to state and you're in that fastest heat, a lot of those swimmers haven't rested fully. That's kind of where we're at. They know that, if we're in the fastest heat, we're looking for them to drop time."
Here's a closer look at what's ahead for the Hodags on Friday.
Malia Francis is looking to do something neither of her siblings did - win a state title as an underclassman. Kiah Francis was runner-up in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke as a junior before winning those same events as a senior. Nolan Francis reached the podium as a sophomore, but didn't find the top step until last year when he won the 100 backstroke and was part of the Hodags' winning 200 freestyle relay.
Malia Francis comes in as the top seed in the butterfly with her time of 57.54 seconds, which is 0.40 faster than second qualifier sophomore Rachel Lenz of Whitnall. Whitefish Bay senior Emma Harris qualified third (57.97) and Ashwaubenon junior Hallory Domnick was the only other swimmer to break 58 seconds at sectionals, qualifying fourth at 57.98.
The battle is tighter in the backstroke where Francis' time of 56.43 seconds is second overall, 0.17 seconds behind McFarland sophomore Mara Freeman. Madison Edgewood sophomore Anna teDuits is seeded third at 57.85 with a sectional time that was slower than her personal best on the season (57.36). Freeman and teDuits finished 1-2 in the event at state last November as freshmen.
"My goal for state would be to win one of my two individual races, at least. It would be great to win both of them but the field is really fast, so we'll see how that turns out," Francis said. "In the fly I don't know my competition as well because I haven't really raced any of those girls before, raced a few of them, not all. In the backstroke, I've raced those girls quite a few times. They'll be tough, but I'm ready to fight for it."
If Malia Francis wins a gold medal Friday night, the Francis family would join the Babcocks as the only Rhinelander family this century with three high school state-champion siblings. Amy, Emily and Sarah Babcock all won WIARA individual state titles in girls' snowboarding.
Winnicki seeks podium
Winnicki will compete for the third time at state in the 500 freestyle, and is looking to continue the progression she showed in the event last year.
She tied for ninth in the event as a freshman with a time of 5:21.00. She was seventh a year ago - one spot off the podium - with a time of 5:18.84. That's her lifetime best in the event. She came close to that mark last Saturday (5:19.74) to qualify eighth in the field. However, Winnicki is only 1.48 seconds behind fourth-seeded Casey Stephens of Whitefish Bay, a minuscule amount of time over a 20-length race.
"I think there's a lot of room to drop even more time. I know it's a fast field. From fourth place to eighth place we're all within a second and a half between each other. I know it will be really close race," she said.
Winnicki qualified fifth in the 200 IM with a lifetime-best 2:13.60.
"It was kind of a shocker that I placed so high going into state," she said. "I know there are some girls seeded behind me that have the potential to drop a lot of time and more up a lot of places. I know I'll have to watch out for that, but I'm just hoping to drop more time and improve my splits in that IM."
Rhinelander also has podium aspirations with both of its relay entries. The team's sectional-winning time of 1:49.65 is the fifth-fastest time in the state, 1.38 seconds behind top-seeded Madison Edgewood.
The Hodags are seeded eight in the 200 freestyle relay with their time of 1:41.27. Rhinelander placed fourth in the 200 freestyle relay at sectionals, which was more a testament to the depth of the field than anything else. Seven of the 16 state qualifiers in the 200 freestyle relay came out of the Wisconsin Rapids sectional.
"It was crazy to think how fast that race was, but look at how close it also was," Heck said. "I was hoping to be higher than fourth, but maybe our opportunity is coming on Friday. The medley relay has room to come down as well. I was looking at our splits and I think they all have room to come down and will come down. We're expecting time drops in both."
Edgewood again has the top seed in the 200 freestyle at 1:38.51 while DeForest checks in second at 1:40.13. Should the Hodag quartet match or better DeForest's seed time, it would eclipse the school record of 1:40.14 set in 1994 when the Hodags won the state D2 title in the event.
The final of Rhinelander's state entries belongs to Kennedy in the 100 backstroke. She bettered her seed time at sectionals (1:00.18), but finished fourth in the race and ended up seeded 11th overall in the event.
Her goal is simple - to become only the third swimmer in school history to crack break the minute mark in the event. Kiah and Malia Francis are the only other Hodag swimmers to have accomplished the feat.
"Going a 1:00.1 (at sectionals) was a little disappointing, so I think I'm going to shift that goal over to Friday and try to get under a minute again in the 100 backstroke," she said.
St. Pierre had hopes of earning Rhinelander's eighth state entry, but narrowly missed out in the 100 breaststroke. Her third-place finish at sectional missed the state cut line by 0.18 seconds.
Still the sophomore will play a vital role on the relays. She swam the anchor leg in both the 200 medley and 200 freestyle at sectionals and is gunning to break the 25-second mark in her splits on Friday night.
"It will help me just to focus on one part of the relay," St. Pierre said of missing out on the breaststroke. "This is going to be my first experience at state. I'm excited to see how we're going to do."
The four Rhinelander swimmers in the pool will not be the only Hodags performing at the WIAA state meet. Heck told the team Monday that senior Jaylen Janssen has been selected to perform the national anthem prior to both the diving and swimming portions of Friday's Division 2 state meet.
According to Heck, Janssen got in touch with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association, which helps organize the meet in conjunction with the WIAA, after WISCA sent out a tweet looking for volunteers to sing the anthem at state.
Janssen sang the national anthem prior to several RHS home meets this fall.
"Jaylen had a little interview and is really excited to sing for both the diving portion and the swimming portion on Friday. She'll have a chance to sing twice and represent Rhinelander," Heck said. "How fun is that? I think it makes it exciting for all of us."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce