It has been a long time since the Rhinelander High School girls' swim team experienced the kind of success it saw in 2019.
The Hodags placed fifth overall at the WIAA Division 2 state meet, its best performance at state since posting a string of runner-up finishes from 1992 to 1994. Malia Francis became only the second individual state champion for the Hodags in the past 25 years (her older sister Kiah being the other) and Rhinelander ended a 17-year conference championship drought this year in dominating fashion.
"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."
Here are five storylines from the recently completed season.
Rhinelander's season culminated with a banner night at the WIAA D2 state meet.
The performance of sophomore Malia Francis highlighted the night as she not only won but dominated her two individual events.
She won the 100-yard butterly by 1.38 seconds with a time (56.23) that was seventh-best on the all-time state D2 list. She followed that up with a 0.96-second win in the 100 backstroke with a time (54.72) that was only 0.07 off the D2 state record.
"It feels awesome. I didn't exactly come into the meet thinking that I was going to be able to pull off both of my races, but I'm so happy," Francis said afterward. "I felt great during both of them. I couldn't be more excited."
Malia capped off a great 2019 for the Francis family at the UW Natatorium. Her older brother, Nolan, won two golds medals at the D2 state boys' meet back in February.
But Malia Francis wasn't alone in her success down in Madison.
Junior Makenna Winnicki added a fourth-place finish in the 500 freestyle - her best result in three tries in the event at state. Francis, Winnicki, Lisa Kennedy and Noelle St. Pierre garnered Rhinelander's fourth podium finish as they placed fifth in the 200 medley relay.
"I'm so relieved. I'm so proud of them," coach Jenny Heck said afterward. "Fifth place (in the final standings) is better than we'd thought we were even projected to do, although I knew we had the potential there. Overall just really pleased with all the girls."
The same four swimmers finished eighth in the 200 freestyle relay, Winnicki was ninth in the 200 individual medley and Kennedy finished 13th in the 100 backstroke to round out the Hodags' state performances.
The quartet earned their ticket to state following a great day at WIAA Division 2 sectionals in Wisconsin Rapids, however their accomplishments took a backseat to the drama that unfolded down the stretch in the team standings.
The Hodags were playing catch up much of the way, with River Falls and Rice Lake getting a head start in the team standings thanks to points they accrued during the diving portion of the sectional meet held a night earlier. Rhinelander did not move into the top spot in the team standings until after the penultimate event, the 100 breaststroke.
Even then, the Hodags held a tenuous nine-point lead over Rice Lake and an 11-point edge over River Falls - which were both seeded ahead of Rhinelander in the final race of the event.
The Hodags needed to finish seventh or better, and hope both River Falls and Rice Lake did not finish better than their seed, to hold on to the sectional title. When the dust settled, Rice Lake finished third, River Falls finished fourth and Rhinelander took seventh to give Rhinelander the sectional crown by one point over Rice Lake.
"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."
Maria Heck, Genna Fugle, Sierra Woodford and Marisa McGuire made up the quartet in the 400 freestyle relay that did enough to secure the title.
Rhinelander had not won a conference title since winning the Wisconsin Valley Conference in 2002. However, early on, it became apparent the Hodags would be the team to beat in the GNC this season.
By the third week of the conference dual season, Rhinelander had established itself as the favorite. The Hodags knocked off Lakeland and Medford in back-to-back weeks, while five-time defending champion Tomahawk was off to a slow start.
Rhinelander went undefeated in conference duals, their closest margin of victory was an 18-point win over Lakeland back on Sept. 12. That, coupled with Ladysmith's upset of Lakeland in the final dual of the season, put the Hodags in the driver's seat heading into the conference meet, needing to finish only second or better to secure the overall conference title.
Rhinelander did one better, winning four events - including a pair of 1-2 finishes by Francis and Kennedy in the 200 IM and the 100 backstroke - to win the meet by 21 points over Lakeland.
"That was what we wanted," added head 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."
In all, Rhinelander had seven all-conference swimmers (Kennedy, Francis, Winnicki, McGuire, Heck, Woodford and St. Pierre) and Francis was voted the conference's swimmer of the year.
The record board at the Heck Family Community Pool received a major update thanks to this year's squad. In all, the team set three school records, three GNC records and three Heck Pool records.
The varsity records in the medley relay, butterfly and backstroke were broken several times throughout the season, culminating with the Hodags' performance at state. Francis now holds the school marks in the 100 butterfly (56.23) and the backstroke (54.72) while the team of Kennedy, Francis, Winnicki and St. Pierre hold the school record in the 200 freestyle relay (1:49.08).
Kennedy, Francis, Winnicki and McGuire set the conference mark in the medley relay (1:53.37) while Francis took down the conference marks in the IM (2:09.98) and the backstroke (57.21).
The team of Kennedy, Francis, Winnicki and Heck set the pool record in the 200 medley really (1:54.46) during the dual meet Sept. 12 against Lakeland. Francis set the pool record in the backstroke (57.00) Sept. 26 against the Ladysmith co-op and Francis took down the pool record in the butterfly (57.73) Oct. 10 against Mosinee.
The Hodags will lose some of their depth as they are set to graduate four seniors including breaststroker/freestyler McGuire, butterflier Riley Miller and freestyler Jaylen Janssen. However, all four state qualifiers are slated to return, which has the team already thinking about 2020. The team is also to get a shot in the arm with a number of incoming freshmen.
Among those coming into the program will be Winnicki's younger sister, Abi, who won the 50-yard freestyle at the Wisconsin Valley Conference middle school meet this past October with a time of 25.74 seconds. To put it in perspective, that time would have been fast enough to finish second in the Great Northern Conference meet this year.
"I'm really excited for next year because I know a lot of the eighth graders coming in," Kennedy said. "I know that about three or four of them could possible make it to state individually as well next year. I think we're going to be a team to watch out for next year."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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