From an early age, it was pretty clear this crop of athletes was a bit different for the Northfield girls swimming and diving team.
Some remember the feeling freshman year — when what’s turned into this year’s 13-athlete senior class was already contributing in a big way to the varsity team — that the group had potential to clear major benchmarks by the time they graduated.
Another one of those benchmarks was cleared Friday, when the Gators claimed the Section 1AA title, which was the fourth straight section crown counting the last three Section 1A championships before a move up to Class AA this fall.
“It was cool to see everything (Northfield girls swimming and diving coach Chris Morgan) was talking about freshman year up until this year play out,” Mia Mollenhauer said. “Even being moved up to double-A and still winning the section, we definitely know that we’re a powerhouse.”
That section title came on the heels of a true team section crown and the program’s first-ever Big 9 Conference Championship.
Even before this year, there was significant evidence this crop of seniors was talented, with most of the scoring that won last year’s section championship coming from this year’s senior class, which features Mollenhauer, Signe Hauck, Tatum Hauck, Ella Kelm, Chloe Mellgren, Madelyn Meyer, Christina Narveson, Ava O’Hara-Brantner, Ella Palmquist, Caroline Peterson, Hannah Ringlien, Samantha Sundby and Alice Zhang.
That group will also admit that ability was thrown into doubt entering this year. With the move up to Class AA, and into a deeper and faster Section 1AA, some of the Gators questioned whether they had the speed to keep up.
Slowly, though, they started to realize they were fully capable of not only keeping up, but outracing the new competition. Mellgren said she sat down toward the start of the season and compared the results from last year’s Section 1AA Championships against Northfield’s times, and came to the realization she and her teammates were capable of winning the section.
Narveson needed some tangible proof, which came when Northfield claimed the Section 1AA True Team Championship.
“We moved up to a new section and we stepped up,” Narveson said. “We were the new people but we still won.
“I think we all would agree that it was more stressful,” Mellgren added, “but in the end we’re all very proud of ourselves and excited to see what comes next.”
The senior class also received some reinforcements along the way.
While Ringlien, who didn’t join the team until late in her high school career, didn’t factor into the scoring at the Section 1AA Championships, her dives played a key role in winning the True Team Section 1AA title and the Big 9 Conference championship.
“I wasn’t part of this team since freshman year, but I heard a ton about it from people, and I didn’t really realize how incredible it was until I decided to join the team,” Ringlien said. “It was insane to see how talented each of these girls are.”
An additional byproduct of Northfield’s move up to Class AA was that it was no longer limboing underneath the enrollment classification for Class A. Once that number was surpassed for good, the school co-opted with Randolph, which brought in Samantha Sundby and her sister, sophomore Lindsay Sundby.
“I’ve swam with a lot of these girls with club and stuff, so I didn’t think there was that big of a transition,” Samantha Sundby said. “I’ve never seen sections, so it was a really cool experience to see that and swim Wednesday.”
In the end, while there may have been some apprehension at the start of the season, the senior class is thrilled with the move up to Class AA and the confirmation of talent that followed the section title.
“We knew we were going to have to work for it this year,” O’Hara-Brantner said. “Not that we didn’t have to work for it last year, but (last year) it was just like, ‘We just have to do our best and we’ll probably win.’ This year we had to do our best and we’d still be fighting for it.”
That was the key, many of the seniors said. In past years, Northfield coasted to the section title without much worry about whether a particular swimmer finished 10th or 15th in an event. That difference mattered immensely Friday, where the final margin of victory was a minuscule six points.
While it didn’t result in qualifying for state, Meyer’s sixth-place performance in Thursday’s diving finals helped lift the Gators over the top.
“This sounds cocky, but it was really nice to have hard competition and have to work really hard for that win,” Meyer said. “It was more fun to have to be competitive and have to have every dive and every swim count and matter.
“It was nice to prove that we can kick butt no matter what section we’re in,” Meyer added. “It felt like our team moving up into their section wasn’t going to change anything in their section. It felt like we were just an added part and it wasn’t going to make a difference, and we did make a difference.”