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Late surge gives Villa Maria its eighth straight state crown

LEWISBURG >> Nothing lasts forever, but Villa Maria’s dominance in the PIAA Girls Swimming and Diving Championships is just about as close as it comes in the fickle world of competitive athletics.

Trailing by 29 points heading into the final day of action at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium, the Hurricanes roared back to seize the Class 2A state championship on Saturday, and in the process secured the program’s eighth consecutive crown. Every year since 2011, Villa Maria has reigned over the rest of the state’s best, and longtime head coach Cathy Hay acknowledged afterwards that it wasn’t easy.

“This was the scary one,” she said. “This is special.

“Somebody up there was helping us with this one,” she added, looking to the heavens.

Senior Nina Smith added: “We were definitely a little bit worried heading into (Saturday), but we had to stay confident and work together.”

The final point total of 178 wound up 39 better than runner-up Dallas, but it was much closer than the score indicates.

In fact, the difference for the ’Canes was a dominant 2-3-4 finish in the 500-yard freestyle, which rolled up 48 points for Villa in one remarkable showing.

“Something like that happens and the whole team lifts up,” Hay said. “It really made a difference.”

Villa Maria did not win a single event in two days at Bucknell — the closest being senior standout Kaitlyn Agger, who was the silver medalist in the 500 — but the squad pulled through with unmatched depth and an unwavering focus on “the team.”

“That’s how you win championships,” Hay said matter-of-factly.

“It’s a legacy that was started eight years back, and we just wanted to keep it going,” added senior Kira Buchler, who contributed with a fifth place finish in the 100 backstroke. “We really enjoy the finals. We get more pumped up than usual.”

The comeback was not a total surprise because the Hurricanes had a relay team and five individual finalists on Saturday. It set up the scenario that allowed Villa Maria to make up a lot of lost ground from a less stellar outing Friday.

“We were very worried, but we also knew we had done our job on Friday,” said assistant coach Fritz Schuman.

“In years’ past, it just came naturally,” added Agger, who also the anchor leg in the 400 freestyle relay that took home seventh place. “This year we had to want it and work so hard to get it.

“We were fourth heading into (Saturday), and people were probably thinking, ‘Oh, Villa’s not going to be able to do it.’ But the second day is our stronger one as a team, and we pulled through.

“Somehow, we did it.”

And Agger led the way with the runner-up finish in the 500. Her time of 4:58.54 marked the first time in her career she was able to break the five minute barrier. When sophomore Katherine Fronczak (5:04.55) and junior Alexa Turco (5:07.05) quickly followed in third and fourth place, respectively, the Hurricanes soared up the team standings.

“This year we had to depend on our distance people. That’s what carried us over,” Hay explained.

“This time was different than past years,” Shuman agreed. “We had to put our relays into position and we used our distance people to carry the load.”

The trio of Agger, Fronczak and Turco then teamed with Smith to close it out in style with a seventh in the 400 freestyle relay (3:39.81).

“It is so motivational to have (Agger and Turco) racing next to me,” Fronczak said.

“Those three really came through,” Hay pointed out. “They are girls that are distance swimmers. Fronczak never even thought of herself as a sprinter.”

Villa Maria also racked up some valuable points in the 100 backstoke, with Buchler going 58.72 for fifth place, and freshman Madeline Ladd placing ninth by winning the consolation final (58.74).

And diver Riley Miller got the Hurricanes off to a good start in the afternoon by taking eighth overall in the one-meter event. The junior was coming off a third place finish in District 1.

“I wasn’t an automatic qualifier, so I didn’t find out I was coming until about two weeks ago,” Miller said. “I didn’t know what to expect since I’ve never gotten this far before.”

Villa Maria extended its amazing string of state titles despite losing 11 state qualifiers the previous two seasons. But according to Hay, the pressure to keep the streak intact wasn’t a big factor.

“We’ve been doing it so long — it’s such a tradition,” she said. “The ones who are seniors and juniors have come up, they know what goes on at states and they know the feel of winning it.

“That’s really helps us.”

In the boys’ 2A competition, the only local swimmer to place was Bishop Shanahan sophomore Jack Fidanza, who finished 22nd overall in the 500 freestyle (4:59.58). As a team, the Eagles placed 32nd overall.

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