Topeka You'll have to forgive the Free State High girls swimming team if it takes until next year's state meet for the girls to decide which element of this year's meet was their favorite.
Seriously. The list of Free State fantastics was that long.
For starters, the Firebirds brought home a second-place trophy from Saturday's finals at Hummer Sports Park. But that barely made waves in the pool that was the Firebirds showing at the 2008 state meet.
In addition to the second-place team finish, the Firebirds set two meet records, both of which also were school records, landed three girls on the all-state list and won state championships in three events.
"There are no words for this," freshman Reilly Moore said moments after the Firebirds opened the meet by winning the state title in the 200-yard medley relay. "I'm still in shock. Seeing everyone put their heart and soul into this race was amazing."
Little did Moore know, the first event merely got the party started. For most of Saturday's 12-event championship meet, the Firebirds hovered near the top of the team standings while mixing in stellar individual performances.
In the individual 200 freestyle, which immediately followed the medley relay, junior Molly Albrecht proved her team was in it to win it by finishing first despite being seeded second heading into the race.
Albrecht shaved more than three seconds off of her previous best time in the event.
"I did not think I had that in me," Albrecht said. "I think getting the record in the medley relay to open the meet just got us all fired up. And I benefited from it because the 200 freestyle happened to be the next event."
As Albrecht, the only three-time individual champion at Saturday's meet, climbed to the top of the podium to accept her medal, she first congratulated her competitors and then let loose with a sly smile. The smile grew bigger as the cheers grew louder, eventually inspiring Albrecht to bust into all-out laughter at the joy of the moment.
If not for touching the timing pad .01 seconds after Topeka West's Emily Dicus in the 100 backstroke, Albrecht would have left the meet a four-time state champion. Instead, she settled for three firsts and a second.
Albrecht was not alone in saving her best for last. Flannigan, who swam the anchor leg on both state-championship relay teams, also finished second in the 500 freestyle (5:01.87) and third in the 200 free (1:52.89). The sophomore's 500 free time was more than three seconds better than her previous personal best.
Portela, a freshman, also added a pair of top-five finishes to her contribution on the two relay titles. Portela finished third in the 100 butterfly (56.81) and fifth in the 100 backstroke (57.32). Her most important contribution of the day, however, came in the final event, as the Firebirds went for the gold in the 400 freestyle relay.
Moore swam the opening leg of the event and kept the Firebirds near the top after her 100 yards. Albrecht was next, and she took the team from a close fourth-place position to within a hand of the lead. That's when Portela hit the water and went wild. Just as she did during the third leg of the same race on Friday, Portela put plenty of distance between the Firebirds and the competition, giving Flannigan a full body lead to work with on the final leg.
"I love it," Flannigan said. "It takes so much pressure off of me, and I can just go out and swim."
Flannigan held on for the victory and in the process touched the pad .69 seconds faster than any relay team in state history.
"It's definitely adrenaline and definitely nerves, too," Flannigan said. "We all hoped we could get it done, but I'm not sure we really knew if we would or not. It's unbelievable."
Although the team's top four swimmers held the spotlight, the Firebirds would not have finished second in the standings without contributions from every swimmer that suited up on Saturday.
Senior Katie Sloan added to the team total by finishing 12th in the 100 butterfly and swimming the second leg of the 200-yard freestyle relay team that won the consolation finals and finished ninth overall. Sloan was joined by Moore, Kayla Hedges, who also took 15th in the 500 free, and Adrianne Black.
"This means so much to all of us," Portela said. "We came here expecting nothing and only hoping to do our best. To come out with second place is amazing."
FSHS coach Annette McDonald agreed and said Saturday's action put the finishing touches on a fantastic season.
"I'm just like, 'Wow,'" a clearly jubilant McDonald said. "We're so happy. It was a tough competition, everybody was seeded so close and the girls really came through. They really deserve credit for what they've done here. They worked really, really hard all year and it paid off in a big way."