If this season had turned into a transition year, it wouldn’t have been a big surprise.
Without last year’s large and successful senior class, the team broken into two different practice groups and the restriction to only be able to compete in virtual meets, this year’s Northfield girls swimming and diving team had a list of obstacles to overcome that stretched on longer than a meet program at a True Team state competition.
Instead, the Raiders wiped away those concerns one-by-one, and after dropping their first dual meet of the year against Rochester Century, rattled off seven consecutive victories to close the season and enter the championship season firmly in the conversation to defend both the Big 9 Conference title on Oct. 17 and Section 1AA title on Oct. 23rd.
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” Northfield coach Chris Morgan said. “Are we going to defend our conference title and section title? I think we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have some relevance in doing so, and that’s fun.
“We lost our first dual to Century and we haven’t lost since,” he continued, “and it’s just because we out-depth everybody. It’s because so many kids have come so far that I can put a plethora of names in the middle of a heat and they’re going to be competitive.”
For years, the winning recipe for Northfield has been to overwhelm the opposition with depth. After the graduation of 16 seniors from last year, however, it superficially appeared the depth might have evaporated.
Instead, it allowed a new wave of athletes simmering beneath the surface in junior varsity races to show they were more than capable or producing at the varsity level.
“I feel like that has really fired us up, and I feel like we actually have improved a lot,” Northfield senior Ava O’Neill said. “A lot of the girls, especially the younger girls, have improved and dropped a lot of time. Me personally, I’ve dropped, too, and gotten some best times, so I’m happy about that and happy about our team so far.”
Senior Emma Johnson spent most of her diving career competing JV. This year, however, she’s one of three divers left on the roster, and after recovering from an injury last week, is set to compete at the Big 9 and section meet for the first time.
“I haven’t really been able to do sections and state and things like that,” Johnson said. “Now I’m probably going to be in the conference meet and the section meet, so I’m excited to do that.”
Another reason for the sustained success has been the leadership of the team’s eight seniors, Morgan said.
Due to safety regulations pertaining to COVID-19, and the size of Northfield’s roster, the team has to practice in two separate pods to not overcrowd the Northfield Middle School pool.
Even with that, the same team atmosphere that typically attracts athletes to join the program in droves has persisted.
“We’ve done a good job making the best of it,” senior Meadow Vrtis said. “We have an incredible team behind us. It’s absolutely amazing. Last (week) was senior night, and the energy they showed and the passion — this team is in great hands when we’re not here anymore.”
New faces stepping up
After a year in which the Gators claimed the Section 1AA true team and championship-format titles, plus a Big 9 Conference championship, Morgan insists his squad has shown more improvement and speed gains this year.
That goes from first-time varsity swimmers all the way up to veterans, like senior diver Zibby Hanifl, who has topped out at a personal-best score of 425 points this year. In a normal season, she might be in the conversation for a Class AA state title.
For Hanifl, that improvement might be expected as natural progression. For most of the team, however, the exponential growth is due to a combination of opportunities to swim on the varsity team and the pressure to uphold the standards of the program.
“It’s amazing how they just swim out of their brain because there’s this expectation that you have to be so good,” Morgan said. “I’m really glad for that. It’s the tradition that they feel and they want to hold it up. I’m just really proud of a lot of things.”
“It’s amazing and inspiring to see them, because we’ve had some great races from seventh and eighth graders this year,” Vrtis added. “I’m honestly, genuinely so excited to see what they can do in the future. It’s very attainable now for them. You see them going out there with all this passion and energy for the sport and just ready to take it on. They’re doing an amazing job.”
That improvement has also come without what Morgan thinks is the greatest driver for improvement — competition.
With only virtual dual meets this year, the Gators have only been swimming against themselves. That will continue at the Big 9 Conference meet, which will also be virtual, but Northfeld will receive a dose of direct competition in their final contest of the year.
The Section 1AA meet still won’t mirror the crowded bonanza at the Rochester Recreation Center, but it will allow three teams to swim in the same pool, with times then being combined later on.
Northfield will be in a pod with Owatonna and Hastings, which might combine to help further this year’s time drops.
“I really hope that sets us apart,” Morgan said. “The week before in our pool we’re doing a virtual Big 9 meet, and because they’re six days apart, it’s hard to have one roster be different than another, so it’s going to be the same kids. In truth, I know we’re going to have a better performance on the 23rd in sections.”