Gilford’s Courtney Leach is all smiles as she stands on the podium to receive her medal in the 100 freestyle during Saturday’s Division II State Swimming and Diving Championships. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
February 13, 2012DURHAM – The Swasey Pool at the University of New Hampshire was alive with interesting stories on Saturday.
Courtney Leach was putting the finishing touches on a brilliant career. Antony Hubbard was looking to defend his state championship. Sarah Sundius was engaged in her very first swim-off. Hannah Willcutt and her Winnisquam teammates were hoping to make their mark on a busy day.
All four swimmers had plenty to be happy about when all was said and done, as the NHIAA Division II Swimming and Diving Championships capped off a short but busy winter season throughout the Granite State.
It was the fourth consecutive trip to the state championship meet for Leach, as the Gilford High School senior qualified in the 50 and 100 freestyle events. Entering with the fifth-best seed time in each race, Leach took home fifth place in the 50 and third place in the 100 to grab a pair of podium finishes and advanced to Sunday's Meet of Champions. She took seventh in the 50 free at the MOC with a time of 25.90 seconds, and was ninth in the 100 in 57.58.
"It's definitely bittersweet," Leach admitted. "It's a big deal to get to the championship meet all four years. I felt like I kind of set a precedent in getting here the other three years so I wanted to do well in my last one because it felt a little more important being a senior. Those times were my best of the season."
After helping lead the Gilford volleyball team to the Division II title in November, Leach returned to the pool and its much different atmosphere. She was the lone Gilford athlete to reach Saturday's meet, certainly a much different scenario than the Eagles' march to the championship this past fall.
"The two sports are really different but it is nice coming into swimming after volleyball," she explained. "When you're in the pool, you aren't surrounded by your teammates…it's just you. I kind of like that change of pace."
Belmont High School sophomore Hubbard took the state meet by storm last winter as a freshman, capturing the championship in the 100 freestyle and grabbing a third place in the 200 free for good measure. Now a seasoned veteran taking part in his second trip to states, Hubbard battled for the top spots in the same two events before ultimately settling for a pair of impressive second-place finishes. Hubbard's finished just behind Eric Howard of Souhegan in the 100, and he touched the wall with a time of 1:49.65 in the 200 to come up just behind Oyster River's Joel Bates. Hubbard was second in Sunday's Meet of Champions in the 200, swimming a personal best 1:48.92, while also grabbing a fourth place in the 100 with another PR time of 50.14 seconds.
"I definitely felt more in shape this year," Hubbard explained. "I trained hard, I saw what I needed to work on and now I'm just looking for more improvement."
After a tough 200, Hubbard didn't have much recovery time before his 100 finale on Saturday. He did manage to get in some laps to stay sharp on the outside lanes, and he came out fired up and determined to battle right through the finish in the 100.
"I was so pumped up this week," he said. "I felt good because I was swimming my two best events. People have been asking how I was doing in school, keeping in touch with me. It's cool that they want to know how it's been going."
In her first state championship meet, Inter-Lakes High School sophomore Sundius certainly had an afternoon to remember. Sundius had to wait until the 13th event of the afternoon before hopping into the pool around 6:30 p.m., but the youngster's performance was worth the wait. Seeded 11th in the 11-person 100 freestyle field, Sundius moved ahead of nearly half the field to wind up in sixth place, assuring herself a spot on the podium. She had company however, as Lebanon's Amanda Klotz incredibly finished with the exact same time, forcing the duo to compete in a swim-off just minutes later for the right to advance to the Meet of Champions.
"My goal was 58 seconds, so when I swam a 59.04 in the first race, I still thought that was pretty awesome," Sundius said. "So I looked up at the board after I finished and saw my time. And I noticed the girl in the lane next to me had the exact same time. So sure enough, we end up having to have the swim-off, which I had never done before. I'm just thinking, 'Oh great, I have to swim this again."
The swim-off lived up to its billing, as the two athletes stayed neck-and-neck the entire 100 yards as the packed house rose to its feet for the final kick. In the end, Sundius improved her time from the original race, clocking in with an impressive 58.41 seconds, but she somehow still fell just shy of the MOC thanks to Klotz's time of 58.12 seconds.
"I was really excited…I got my 58-second time, got a spot on the podium, got a medal," said the effervescent sophomore. "It's kind of a lot of pressure because you want to represent your school, especially when everyone is watching you. But a little later I heard them announce 'Inter-Lakes, 17th place with eight points' in the team standings and that made me really happy."
Sundius came back for her second and final event of the day shortly thereafter, as she competed in the 100 breaststroke, improving her seed time in the process.
"I just swam as fast as I could," said Sundius of the event. "I didn't have anything to lose at that point."
Winnisquam Regional High School senior Willcutt was all over the pool area during a busy afternoon on Saturday. Willcutt qualified for the meet in two individual events (500 free, 100 back) and swam the lead leg of the Bears' 200 Medley Relay that opened up the day of festivities. Willcutt broke the six-minute mark for the first time in the 500, while also performing well in the 100 back.
"I can't sprint at all," she said with a laugh in discussing her interest in the lengthy 500-yard event. "I go one pace and one pace only. But the 500 was cool, I know a lot of people here from swimming on other teams and I had the closest lane to the crowd so I heard people cheering for me. It's all a head game in that event, you've just got to keep pushing yourself and just go for it."
Willcutt's sister Rachel also qualified for two events in addition to the relay, as she competed in the 100 butterfly and 100 breaststroke. Rachel swam the third leg of the Winnisquam relay (butterfly) while senior Shawna Kilcoyne handled the breastroke and junior Elise Maxwell anchored the squad with the freestyle.
"I love watching my teammates race," said Hannah Willcutt. "I just like to see what everyone can do and follow their accomplishments. It was a fun day."
This winter marked the second year that the Willcutt sisters competed in both basketball and swimming at Winnisquam, a grueling schedule that keeps them plenty busy throughout the season.
"I love being able to do both," Hannah said. "Our coaches have been good about letting us do both so that part has been great. We've been swimming a lot before basketball and I feel like it helps with my cardio. And then basketball is almost like dry land training for swimming."
Despite the small contingent of Lakes Region swimmers at the state meet, the athletes take pride in the fact that they are carrying the torches for their respective schools.
"I kind of like having this as my thing," said Leach. "I would love it if everyone from school came to watch this race today, but I'd probably get a little nervous if that happened. Where we live, swimming just isn't that big in high school. It's kind of like dancing, you grow up doing it and some kids stick with it and some switch over to team sports once they start playing in school."
Leach, along with Sundius and the Willcutt sisters, are members of the Lakes Region Wavemakers club when they aren't competing for their high school teams. Hubbard trains with the Manchester Swim Team.
"You get to know a lot of these other swimmers through the club teams so it's good to get to know a lot of them for meets like this," Hubbard said. "You start to compete with them more and more and you can see what they're capable of and what you need to do to win a race against them."