By Keith Shelton
Special for Second Half
MARQUETTE – In a deficit to begin the day, the Gladstone swimmers had their work cut out for them.
So when it got down to the final three events of the day, and the PA announcer read off the standings, the elation and excitement when Gladstone was called in first place for the first time was genuine – the result of a hard day's work with little room for error.
By the time the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, it was a victory lap for the Braves, who were crowned Upper Peninsula champions for the first time Saturday at the MHSAA Girls Swimming & Diving Finals at Marquette High School.
Gladstone, which practices at the Northern Lights YMCA of Delta County, does not have a diving team. So the Braves could only watch Friday as their competitors built an advantage.
"Knowing we don't have diving, and we were going to give up those points, I talked about building depth in the team," said Gladstone head coach Tom Desy. "If we were going to win, we had to be strong in all events, all the way through. The girls dedicated themselves this year to do that. I had a lot of girls step up and swim events that they normally don't like to swim, but they did it for the good of the team."
Gladstone won with 281 points, followed by Houghton with 244 and Marquette with 241. The relatively tight finish was even closer prior to the final events. Before the 17th event, the 200 freestyle relay, Houghton had a slim lead, followed by Marquette and Gladstone. All three teams were within eight points of each other.
But the Braves' saved their best for last. Their 200 freestyle relay team of Jesse Flath, Sydney Herioux, Kirsten Williams and Lindsey McCann finished first with a time of 1:48.98. Gladstone followed with a victory in the 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, and 400 freestyle relay, sweeping the final four events to surge past the competition.
"Marquette and some of the other teams were strong in the IMs, but I know our team is very strong in the back and the breaststroke," Desy said. "I kind of thought if we could stay close, when the back and the breaststroke came up, we could do well, and we did."
Katie Stephenson had an outstanding day for the Braves. The junior placed first in the 100 backstroke (1:04.15), the 50 freestyle (25.72), anchored the Braves winning 400 freestyle relay and was part of the winning 200 medley relay team, the latter of which had a time of 1:57.63, just four tenths of a second off setting a U.P. Finals record.
"It was just adrenaline today," said Stephenson. "I got out of the 100 backstroke and I was breathing so hard, I puked. But I hopped back in. I wanted to finish it (400 freestyle relay) for (senior teammate) Jesse (Flath)."
Herioux, a freshman, won the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:12.40, three seconds faster than her seed time. Sophomore Claire Tembruell placed second in the 100 butterfly and third in the 100 back, and Flath placed second in both the 200 and 100 freestyles.
"Everyone tried their hardest today; it was amazing," exclaimed Flath. "It's amazing considering it's only our fourth year as a team."
Houghton held the lead for a good part of the day, but coach Erik Johnson was satisfied with the runner-up finish, saying his team exceeded expectations.
"If you told me at the end of the meet last year that we were going to finish second, I would have told you, you're out of your mind," he said. "We had a phenomenal meet."
The Houghton girls captured a bevy of second and third-place finishes, with no individual winners, but used their depth and consistency in all events to stay in contention.
"Our girls were undefeated during the season. They knew what they had to do and really stepped up," Johnson said. "Sam Olson was third in the 200 free, and second in the 500, and that helped a ton. It doesn't always come down to winning events. It comes down to those kids that squeeze into sixth place."
The Gladstone swim team, which has a co-op with neighboring Escanaba, was ineligible to compete in the U.P. Finals its first two years, as a club program. But Gladstone’s team became varsity for the 2014-15 season and quickly made a splash with a runner-up finish.
Desy has been there to see his team grow. Prior to taking the coaching job with the Braves, he ran the feeder program at the YMCA for eight seasons.
"This is a proud moment," Desy said. "I'm proud for the Escanaba and Gladstone combined schools. I’m proud of the girls that were on this team, some of which may not have continued through the YMCA without a high school program in place. I'm also very proud of the work I did for the Y, because the Y does a great job with the swim program. Normally without a high school team, those kids would go on to other sports. Now they have a focus to keep swimming and trying hard."
PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch during a race Saturday at Marquette High School. (Middle) A Gladstone swimmer points to the clock as her team made its first MHSAA championship run. (Click for more from Jarvinen Photography.)
MARQUETTE – Thanks to the informative meet announcer, the Upper Peninsula Swimming & Diving Finals crowd gets to learn a little bit about each participant – from basic facts like who their parents are to why they like the upcoming race.
In the sprints, that can generate some predictable answers, like the many athletes who pointed out they like that event because it’s one of the shorter races.
Before the grueling 500-yard freestyle event, Marquette senior Grace Sobczak and freshman Olive Krueger brought a little levity and originality, both saying it was because they get to beat the other one.
That, however, is easier said than done for anybody.
Sobczak finished her high school career Saturday a perfect 4-for-4 in the event, and she also repeated as the 200-yard individual medley champion and was part of winning 200 and 400 free relay teams at Marquette Senior High School.
Krueger had a great day as well, pushing Sobczak more than anyone else. She was runner-up in a close finish to Sobczak in the 500 while winning the 100 freestyle and helping the 400 free relay to a win.
“They trained right next to each other,” Marquette coach Nathan McFarren said, “and fed off each other. Just incredible to watch. They one-upped each other and pushed each other up until the race every day.”
They led Marquette to its third-straight U.P. championship as they and their teammates dominated the nine-team field with 386.5 points; runner-up Gladstone had 258. Ishpeming Westwood took third with Kingsford fourth, Houghton fifth, Sault Ste. Marie sixth, Ishpeming/Negaunee seventh, Rudyard eighth and Manistique ninth.
Sobczak said her dad wasn’t a big fan of the pre-race joke, but she said everyone laughed. And in the end, the duo put on a great 500 race with Krueger coming on strong late.
“I had to push myself in that race a lot,” Sobczak said.
That’s her favorite event; she’s a distance swimmer and that’s the only true distance event. Winning that one Saturday and making it a perfect 4-for-4 meant a lot to her.
“It’s amazing, crazy,” Sobczak said. “I got up there, and I started crying because it’s so surreal.”
She was even more reflective at the end of the day.
“I’ve been swimming since I was 6 years old. This was my last race at this pool,” Sobczak said. “We’re three in a row, it’s pretty crazy. Last year I got four (U.P. titles), this year I got four, it’s pretty cool.”
Her coach said she’s quiet but a great leader. She “stepped it up this year with taking charge as a senior,” McFarren said.
And she has a teammate she can pass the baton to in Krueger. While Krueger finished less than two seconds after Sobczak, the next swimmer was more than 30 seconds behind Krueger.
“I knew it’d be close because we always race together, but I’m glad she won,” Krueger said.
Freshman Kaytlin Roell finished first in the 50 free as Marquette won its 28th U.P. Finals team title and fifth over the last six years.
Gladstone senior Adrianna Getzloff had a big day, finishing first in the 200 free and the 100 backstroke. She also helped the Braves to a first-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
Two of her teammates also had first-place finishes – sophomore Irene Neumeier won the 100 butterfly and junior Mary Hook took the 100 breaststroke. They were also on the 200 relay team along with Ava Getzloff.
Westwood sophomore Maggie Harvala won the diving competition with a score of 214.90.
McFarren made it a combined 17 Finals championships as coach for boys and girls for Marquette, tying Marquette’s Matt Williams for the meet record.
PHOTOS (Top) Marquette's Grace Sobczak swims to a victory in the 500-yard freestyle Saturday. (Middle) Kaytlin Roell swims the 100 breaststroke for Marquette. (Below) Gladstone's Mary Hooks swims to the win in the breaststroke. (Click for more from Jarvinen Photos.)