by Tom Utescher
In the heat of competition at Arcadia University last Wednesday evening, no fewer than nine women’s pool records were broken. Sounds like an exciting collegiate swim meet, but it wasn’t a college event at all.
For their annual Senior Night showdown in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, Mount St. Joseph and Gwynedd Mercy had shifted the action from La Salle High School – the regular “home” venue for both teams – to Arcadia, whose pool provides two more racing lanes.
The Gwynedd Monarchs took an early lead and held it until more than halfway through the meet program. The Mount then edged ahead with a victory in the 200-yard freestyle relay, but it wasn’t until the final race, the 400 free relay, that the Magic clinched the meet win, 88-82.
Both schools had previously edged out Narareth Academy on the strength of their 400 free relay teams, as well. Gwynedd’s only other league loss had come against Catholic Academies superpower Villa Maria, while the Mounties (5-2) overall were still unbeaten in the AACA, with their meeting with Villa still ahead.
Traditionally, the Mount has had a bit more depth than Gwynedd, but the Monarchs keep getting closer, thanks in part to Olympics prospect Allie Szekely, a junior, and her sophomore sister Stephanie, who is almost as formidable. The Magic won last year’s encounter by a dozen points (53-41), but this time around the Monarchs cut that margin in half.
The top talent at Gwynedd forces most opponents to arrange their racers very carefully in diverse events (no individual may participate in more than four races). It was no different last Wednesday for Mount St. Joe skipper Janet Pudlinski.
“We knew some of their girls were untouchable – phenomenal swimmers – so we tried to play our depth and take as many seconds, thirds, and fourths as we could,” she related.
Objectively, Gwynedd would have to be favored in the early portion of the meet; the Mount’s goal was to stay close. As expected, the Gwynedd quartet of Allie Szekely, junior Hannah Blaser, freshman Alaina Zaki, and senior Kieragh McMenamin won the opening event, the 200-yard medley relay, clocking in at one minute, 52.90 seconds. The runner-up foursome for the Magic consisted of freshman Rebecca Patti and juniors Julia Comerford, Rachel Sandquist and Katie Zimmerman, and the Mount also took third place thanks to freshmen Cathryn Antonacio and Madi Sandquist, junior Liz DeGroat, and sophomore Aly Carpenter.
In tight meets, Pudlinski has the option of moving senior workhorse Steph Eble to almost any type of race, and here she made her evening’s debut with a victory in the 200 freestyle (2:01.61). Gwynedd snapped up the next two places, though, through the efforts of senior Mary Kate Curley and junior Allie McKenna.
In the next two events, Gwynedd took top honors in the 200 individual medley with Steph Szekely (2:11.68) and in the 50 free with Blaser. The Mount stayed close behind as freshman Jen DeGroat and older sister Liz came in second and third in the medley and sophomore Katherine Schafer and Zimmerman captured those same places in the freestyle sprint.
There was a break in the action as each school honored its departing seniors. At this point, the Monarchs led the meet, 32-30. Three races later, Gwynedd would still be up by two points, 56-54.
Coming out of the break, each of the Szekely sisters won an event for GMA, Allie in the butterfly (56.23) and Steph in the 100 free (54.33). Once again, second and third places went to Mount St. Joe. Schafer was runner-up in the fly ahead of Rachel Sandquist, and in the 100 free it was senior Haley Sannem leading Jen DeGroat to the wall.
Gwynedd’s Curley then won the 500 free in 5:27.48, while Mount freshman Taylor Dragonosky was second and senior Georgia Kelly was third.
Now the Magic were looking to turn in a pivotal performance, loading up their premier foursome in the 200 free relay with Sannem, Eble, Schafer, and Jen DeGroat.
Pudlinski explained, “I had Gwynedd leading the meet up until the 200 free relay, and that’s where I was hoping to have us make a move. We pretty much knew that if we don’t win that one, we probably don’t win the meet, because their other two relays are just too strong.”
Swimming behind three veteran teammates, there was a lot of pressure on DeGroat, but the ninth-grader was able to maintain the Mount’s lead on the anchor leg. The Magic won in 1:43.69 over GMA’s McMenamin, Zaki, Curley, and Steph Szekely. An important third-place finish was logged by the Magic’s Zimmerman, Antonacio, Liz DeGroat, and Carpenter.
The last two individual events saw the resumption of the pattern that had pervaded most of the meet; Gwynedd in first place and the Mount second and third. In the backstroke, the order was Allie Szekely (55.90), Patti, and Eble, and in the breast stroke it was Blaser (1:07.85) ahead of Julia Comerford and MSJ sophomore Hannah Soisson.
The backstroke was an unusual assignment for Eble, but she was able to secure some valuable points for the Mount nonetheless.
“She normally doesn’t do back,” Pudlinski remarked, “She had to come right out of the 200 relay, swim backstroke, and go right into the 400 relay, and she did an awesome job. It was important to have Rebecca Patti stepping up for us in that backstroke.”
The Magic had enough of a lead to survive a GMA victory in the final relay, the 400 free, if they could stick to the game plan and capture the next two places. Indeed, a Monarchs victory here was a foregone conclusion, since Steph and Allie Szekely were swimming lead-off and anchor, respectively. With the sisters separated by Curley and Blaser, Gwynedd won in 3:40.25, but the Magic kept their lead secure by once again nabbing second and third.
Jen DeGroat led off the runner-up group ahead of Schafer, Eble, and Zimmerman, with the latter joining the quartet shortly before the race to replace an ailing Sannem. The third-place foursome was a young combo featuring sophomore Carpenter (third leg) along with three freshmen, Antonacio (lead-off), Dragonosky (second), and Patti (anchor).
“Katie Zimmerman had a great meet,” Pudlinsky said. “When Haley was unable to go I needed somebody to grab for the relay. Katie went in and swam a personal best time by over a second, and she had some good swims in the other relays and the 50 free.”
Due to the overhyped “Snowmageddon” weather forecast at the start of the week, the Mounties hadn’t practiced in four days leading up to the Gwynedd meet.
Pudlinsky pointed out, “They were sent home early on Monday, and Tuesday we were off. They’re a very dedicated group, though, so a lot of them went to their clubs and swam on their own.”