John Valentine had high hopes for Crystal Lake South co-op’s 400-yard freestyle relay team of Avery Watson, Bella Fontana, Mackenzie Resch and Abby Uhl at last week’s Stevenson Sectional.
But what the foursome pulled off had the Gators’ coach blown away.
Watson, Fontana, Resch and Uhl flew to a season-best time of 3:29.04 in the final race of the meet, knocking eight seconds off their seed time and qualifying for the IHSA Girls Swimming and Diving State Meet.
The Gators took runner-up to host Stevenson and enter state with the third-fastest time. Stevenson has the top time (3:28.62), followed by St. Charles North (3:28.86).
The preliminaries begin at 3:30 p.m. Friday, with the top 12 in each event advancing to Saturday’s finals.
“I knew they’d make it,” Valentine said. “I thought maybe they’d drop five or six seconds, but I had no idea they’d drop eight. The other thing to keep in mind is we have one freshman, a sophomore and two juniors. These are babies. They’ll be even better next year.”
The last relay team to medal (top 12) from any of the Crystal Lake schools was in 1993, according to IHSA records.
Watson, a junior at South, also qualified in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke; Uhl, a sophomore at Prairie Ridge, will swim in the 100 free and 200 free; and Resch, a junior at South, will compete in the 50 free, giving the Gators a total of six state bids.
But it was the big-time performance of the 400 free relay that had the co-op buzzing with the most excitement. The Gators were ranked fourth going into sectionals and pushed Stevenson for the top spot.
“It was really exciting,” Watson said. “All season, we were looking forward to that race because we just missed the [state] cut last year by 0.41 seconds. ... Stevenson barely out-touched us. We wanted to do it for each other and for everyone on the team.”
Fontana, a freshman at South, has enjoyed her first year on the co-op. She was named Newcomer of the Year at the Fox Valley Conference Invite, which the Gators won to end Huntley’s three-year reign as conference champions. Watson was named Most Valuable Swimmer.
“I’m really honored to represent my school and the team, especially as a freshman,” Fontana said. “This experience will definitely carry with me for many years. It’s such a cool experience and it’s just a big honor. I’m really excited, truthfully.
“These girls are so fast and they work hard. They have a great work ethic. They have the greatest positive mindsets. If we just work together and give it our all again, I think we have it. We have top-3 material. I know we can do it.”
Uhl, who goes into state with the 10th-best time in the 100 free, came close to qualifying as a freshman, so earning her first trip was a big deal. She was coming back from a leg injury she suffered during the summer after a golf cart accident.
“It was nice because it was such a fast sectional, so if you’re competing and racing with those girls, you know you’ll end up doing well,” Uhl said. “It meant a lot to me [to qualify for state]. Coming back as strong as I did made me so happy. I basically had to re-learn how to bend my knee.”
Uhl, who anchors the relay, had a good feeling about her team’s chances of getting to state when she saw Watson get off to a fast start.
“As soon as I saw Avery finish her first 50, I was like, ‘We got this.’ And it just kept getting faster and faster from there,” Uhl said. “To be seeded third is crazy from a co-op that no one really knows. I absolutely love this team. I couldn’t be happier.”
Resch credits the team’s success to a strong work ethic.
“We don’t miss any sets, and we try our hardest with everything because we know it will pay off in the long run,” Resch said. “Many of us have had a close bond since we were 5 years old. To swim year round in club and high school together, I think that really helps us.”
Watson qualified for state last season in the 100 backstroke but did not qualify for the finals. Having more teammates at state with her is one of the things she’s most excited about.
“I’m really excited to go with everyone,” Watson said. “Last year, I was kind of lonely by myself. It’s always such a super-high energy meet. We’re all going to have a lot of fun, we’re going to be rested and ready to go.”
IHSA Girls Swimming and Diving State Meet
at FMC Natatorium in Westmont, Friday (prelims) and Saturday (finals)
200 free: Abby Uhl, Crystal Lake South co-op, so.
50 free: Mackenzie Resch, Crystal Lake South co-op, jr.
Diving: Maggie Bendell, Cary-Grove, jr.
100 butterfly: Avery Watson, Crystal Lake South co-op, jr.; Tessa Jones, Marian Central, sr.
100 free: Abby Uhl, Crystal Lake South co-op, so.
500 free: Abby Hill, Marian Central, fr.; Hannah Johnson, Burlington Central, so.
100 backstroke: Avery Watson, Crystal Lake South co-op, jr.
100 breaststroke: Ali Fitzgerald, Dundee-Crown, sr.
400 free relay: Crystal Lake South co-op (Avery Watson, Bella Fontana, Mackenzie Resch, Abby Uhl)