Olathe As it turned out, the finals at this year’s Sunflower League girls swimming championships were about much more than finding out how high Free State or Lawrence High would place.
That fact was determined at Friday’s preliminaries, where both teams fought through injuries and illnesses and left the pool at California Trail Junior High with FSHS in third and LHS in fourth place.
When the waves settled Saturday, that’s exactly where they ended up. Free State rode first-place finishes from Molly Albrecht (100 backstroke) and Morgan Flannigan (500 freestyle) to a third-place showing, and Lawrence High, behind the strength of two league titles from freshman Emma Reaney (200 IM and 100 breaststroke), finished one spot behind the Firebirds.
But if no clocks were running, no scoreboard existed and no team allegiances were known, Saturday’s meet might have seemed like one heck of a competitive practice for Lawrence-based swimmers.
“I’ve basically practiced with or competed against everybody in the finals for the past two years,” Albrecht said. “Knowing everybody like that just makes you a lot more nervous before you swim. You know everyone’s strategies, and you know they have or they can beat you. After the swim is a lot better, though, because, no matter what happens, you know at least one of your friends won.”
Never was that more evident than during the 500 freestyle and 100 backstroke, where city swimmers owned the prime position on four of the six starting blocks in each race.
In the 500, Flannigan, who was seeded first entering the finals, gradually pulled away from her competition to win in 5:06.27. Joined by Free State’s Kayla Hedges (third, 5:26.95), Adriane Black (fourth, 5:29.06) and Lawrence High’s Erina Houk (fifth, 5:30.45), Lawrence swimmers grabbed four of the top five spots in the race.
Although she admitted she was thrilled to win, Flannigan was a lot less concerned about her victory and a lot more impressed by the way her city represented itself in the finals.
“Lawrence, together, knocks a lot of other teams out,” Flannigan said. “And, since we’re all friends and we all know each other, as long as we go out there and do our best, we don’t really care who gets first, second or third. As long as someone from Lawrence gets first, that’s all that matters.”
A similar scenario unfolded two races later in the 100 backstroke, as Albrecht (first, 57.91) and Chloe Portela (second, 59.97) swept the top spots for Free State, and LHS’s Rachel Buchner (fourth, 1:01.59) and Sarah Schwartz (fifth, 1:01.69), finished side-by-side a few seconds later.
Stacking the medal stand in those two races — and sending three swimmers to the podium in another and two medalists in five more — contributed mightily to both teams cracking the top four.
So, too, did the sweep of Reaney, a freshman who has exploded onto the scene during her first season of high school swimming.
Reaney, who has experience in Olympic qualifying meets, won the 200 IM by four seconds and outpaced the field in the 100 breaststroke by more than two seconds.
“I was happy with that,” Reaney said. “But really, I was just happy with the whole meet and how well our team did. Our relays had a blast today, and a lot of girls on the team did a great job. It was a lot of fun.”
The meet was also a proving ground of sorts for a couple of swimmers. After missing Friday’s action because of an illness, Free State junior Heather Clark returned and helped lead the Firebirds’ 200 freestyle relay team to second place.
Also back in action after falling out of Friday’s meet because of a shoulder injury was FSHS sophomore Reilly Moore, who placed fourth in the 50 freestyle and helped lead a pair of freestyle relay teams to second and third place. Moore did sit out of the 100 breaststroke (the event she was injured in), but only at her coach’s insistence.
“She was willing to go,” FSHS coach Annette McDonald said. “But I was like, ‘No way.’”
Although the third- and fourth-place finishes left both teams disappointed, both pointed to state in two weeks as the next chance to prove themselves.
“I think we’re all lined up pretty well,” LHS coach Kent McDonald said. “I think we’re ready for state.”
Added Free State’s Portela: “(Winning state) is our ultimate goal. It’s what we’ve wanted from the beginning of the season, and it’s what we’ll spend the next two weeks working for. These meets are important, but state’s what matters most.”