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Avon Grove girls complete climb to top, clinching state swim title

LEWISBURG >> Emma Brinton’s freshman year seemed a distant memory Sunday.

Three years ago, the Avon Grove senior was the only Red Devils swimmer to take the trip to the PIAA Class 3A Swimming Championships, winning the B final in the 200 individual medley. She had a diver, Carlie Perkins, for company, Perkins medaling in fifth.

Three years later, Brinton has plenty of company at Bucknell University’s Kinney Natatorium. And the whole cohort Sunday found itself on top of the states heap.

The title isn’t yet official, with this week’s snowstorm postponing diving until next weekend. But Avon Grove finished Sunday with 228.5 points, an insurmountable edge on second place Upper Dublin (176.5). The only team among the top five with a diver is North Penn, which sits fourth with 133 points and can yield a maximum of 68 points from diving (given the unlikely event of a 1-2-3-4 finish).

All that is to say, even absent the trophy presentation and the ceremonial dunk in the pool, the Red Devils are state champs. And that feeling remains surreal to someone like Brinton, privy to the full sweep of recent history.

“My freshman year, we weren’t even winning our dual meets very often, and now here we are — unofficially — state champions,” she diplomatically put it. “It feels so awesome to be someone who’s been here and seen the team grow in this way, it’s been really exciting and I’m so happy for Avon Grove.”

The snow was both a blessing and a curse for Avon Grove. The one-and-done format elicited the best from a team whose strength lies in their stroke depth. After finishing second at the District 1 championships — which Brinton said made her ecstatic — coach Kelly Burk set her sights on a top-five states finish. But a state title seemed beyond the reach of even the rosiest projections.

“They just went out and swam their hearts out,” Burk said. “They swam with grit. It was just unbelievable to watch them swim over the last two days.”

“I feel like it was kind of all in the back of our minds like, ‘oh that would be really cool, that would be amazing,’” junior Olivia Paoletti said. “But just being here in the environment and atmosphere, we just took it and ran with it. So I’m really proud of all of us. We all had great swims.”

The postponement worked to Burk’s favor after a medical procedure landed her in the hospital Friday. She recovered in time to rejoin the team Saturday.

Even if the expectations were tempered, the performance was comprehensive and dominant. Paoletti repeated as the meet’s most outstanding swimmer by winning the 200 IM Saturday and 100 breaststroke Sunday, the latter with a little wrinkle (more on that later).

But the tremendous swims flowed from everywhere. Izzy Paoletti improved on her seed time to take sixth in the 500 freestyle. Brinton finished third in the 100 backstroke from the next-to-last heat, teammate Sydney Paglia also medaling in seventh. Rabea Pfaff blitzed the second heat of four in the 100 breast en route to fourth.

Each of the Red Devils’ relays finished fifth place or better, including the concluding 400 free.

The 100 breast turned into an instant classic, with Paoletti and Downingtown East’s Heather MacCausland splitting the title. MacCausland, who finished 1.5 seconds behind Paoletti in the IM, was the early aggressor. But Paoletti clawed back the deficit in the final meters to touch the wall simultaneously in 1:01.49 and split the top step of the podium with her Ches-Mont rival.

“I was happy because then we both get the glory of winning at states,” MacCausland said. “But I was shocked. I didn’t expect it.”

“It was just amazing,” said Paoletti. “Being state champion with someone else — and she’s so sweet and she’s a great competitor — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Avon Grove led a cavalcade of District 1 programs in the team standings. Pending diving, five of the top six hail from the district, with Conestoga fifth and Unionville sixth. Downingtown East is 10th, and West Chester East 13th.

Conestoga got a gold medal from Caroline Famous in the 100 back, pulling away to win in 53.63 seconds, while teammate Madison Ledwith was seventh in the 100 free. That pair helped the Pioneers finish third in the 400 free relay.

As for Avon Grove’s ascent to Pennsylvania swimming royalty, Burk is still processing it, and not just in the way that the PIAA’s tabulators are. She and Brinton remember when a dual meet win was cause for celebration. A relatively small school compared to the traditional District 1 powers, the length and implausibility of the journey makes the view from the summit that much sweeter.

“It’s just amazing,” Burk said. “Every dual meet that we swam, it can easily be taken away from us. And they’re very, very humble, which I love about them. We go into each meet as one. … Just make sure that you’re humble and you take it one day at a time. We went from going 0-8 to now three undefeated seasons. It’s nice to see that.”

As for the waiting game for official recognition, Olivia Paoletti isn’t worried.

“We’re all super pumped,” she said. “Champions, even if it’s not announced today, we know that we were amazing.”

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