While the Wellesley girls' swim team was already in the pool for Friday’s remote Bay State Conference meet, the swimmers at Newton Northsat in their bleachers, engaging in positive visualization as they pictured racing against a competitor in the next lane.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, the BSC is holding all swim meets virtually this fall. In Friday’s head-to-head matchup, Wellesley swam at 3:15 Friday at Boston Sports Institute, then Newton North followed at 5 p.m. at its high school pool. The swimmers received the results via e-mail around 8 p.m., a 103-83 Wellesley win.
Both programs are implementing innovative strategies to differentiate between practices and meets in this new format.
“Everyone knew that this was the biggest meet of the season,” said Newton North senior captain Karen Tong.
“So we do a lot of visualization before the meet. We go a lot faster when we see that competition beside us and picturing the race in our head, imagining we have a competitor in the lane next to us, and imagining the times going up on the board. It’s a big help.”
The BSC set up a home-and-away schedule for swimming, in which each team is responsible for scoring, and must race the events within a three-day time period.
Newton North students are all learning remotely, so the student-athletes come in one pool door, out the other, and can only use the locker room for bathroom breaks. With pool access coveted, the Tigers aren’t using the full three-day period to race, instead packing their laps into a tight window that gives swimmers even less rest than they would be afforded during a live meet, where diving competitions provide a 30-plus minute break.
“Some swimmers that do multiple events say this is going too fast, which is good that they’re voicing that so we can share it with the officials,” said first-year Newton North coach Kristen Smith, a North alum and former UMass Amherst swimmer with coaching experience at Amherst College and Newton South.
With races coming in quick succession, a little bit of outside motivation would help, but spectators are banned for safety reasons. So Smith and her staff put up cardboard cutouts of family members, celebrities, and cartoon characters to provide a morale boost. In Monday’s season finale against Natick, the school will allow two spectators for each of the team’s 13 seniors, providing some semblance of the usual senior night experience.
“Empty bleachers just feel so empty,” said Tong. “So it’s great to see our family and friends supporting us even if it’s virtually [North offers a live stream for parents via Zoom]."
"[Senior night] will be an amazing feeling. When we started the season, the coaches and captains, we thought maybe this would last a couple weeks, but to get through the season is really special.”
Wellesley, which is coming off its first Division 2 state title, has 10 seniors who are trying to keep their teammates focused and motivated while avoiding yelling, which can increase the risk of spreading germs. Instead, the Raiders bang benches and clap to cheer on teammates.
To increase intensity, Raiders coach Jennifer Dutton has divided her swimmers into red and white sides, pitting them in head-to-head matchups with a final score tallied after the meet.
“Times can always be improved, no matter the competition,” said Dutton, who has steered Wellesley to four consecutive undefeated regular-season campaigns.
“We constantly work on details and really make a big deal about improvements. I really didn’t expect the amount of improvements we’re seeing each week [this season], which is a testament to the girls.”
For schools like Natick, which started swimming in late September after a two-week shutdown, the opportunity to compete is motivation enough. Coach Anne Meisner said the Red Hawks are trying new strategies since the stakes are lower without the pressure of qualifying for sectional or state meets.
“There have been some silver linings,” said Meisner, a former state champion swimmer at Natick who also coaches the Ashland swim program during the winter season.
“They really seem more relaxed when they swim, instead of being stressed out. Not having an audience has been good for some of them. We’ve had a lot of discussions about internal motivation, taking risks, and just being grateful for the opportunity to compete.”
Still, student-athletes are struggling to find the same connection through sport.
“We’re trying to figure out how to motivate each other under these circumstances,” said Natick senior Michaela Grant.
“It’s hard to connect when you can’t see each other much. There are definitely positive aspects, but I do miss that end goal [of states].”
While the Raiders won’t be able to defend their state title, Wellesley senior Lilianna Gross and her classmates are focused on completing their four-year run of undefeated conference competition. And getting past Newton North became the biggest challenge once Needham had to cancel its fall swim season.
The Raiders have two more meets scheduled and are still looking to find one more opponent for a final virtual meet, which they plan to treat like a state championship by tapering their efforts prior to the race.
Gross, a key member of the 200 freestyle relay team that set a school record (1:39.63) at states last November, is still getting used to the process of racing, then going home and nervously refreshing her e-mail until she gets the final tally from her coach.
“It’s definitely a little stressful. Everyone would rather see the results right after the meet,” said Gross. “It’s not about first place every time, it’s about the depth getting those fourth and fifth place finishes, so you get nervous wondering how it will all add up.”
“This year has definitely presented a lot of new challenges and it’s been a fun experience figuring it out all out.”
▪ The MIAA Board of Directors voted, 20-0, on Tuesday to approve its COVID-19 Task Force’s recommendation to cancel 2021 winter tournaments. The board had previously approved a timeline for winter sports to run from Nov. 30 to Feb. 21 with adjusted regional schedules. All activities are pending approval from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), which is expected to offer guidance in early November.
▪ The Independent School League has cancelled its full schedule of winter season games and championships, but hopes individual schools will be able to play some games depending on the situation.
▪ The Catholic Central League will conclude its fall sports schedule with a CCL Cup for boys' and girls' soccer, girls' volleyball, and field hockey, with separate events scheduled in golf (Nov. 3) and cross country (Nov. 4). The team sports will play a single-elimination format from Nov. 14 to Nov. 21 with league athletic directors determining seeding on Nov. 11.
▪The Patriot League will also hold a single-elimination tournament, called the Patriot Cup, for boys' and girls' soccer, and girls' volleyball, with games starting on Nov. 9 and brackets posted on Nov. 7.
▪ The following athletes recently announced their college commitments:
Basketball: Shay Bollin, Bridgewater-Raynham (Duke); Liam Cunnie, Cohasset (Suffolk).
Football: Michael Bongiorno, Buckingham Browne & Nichols (Kenyon); Thomas Maguire, Buckingham Browne & Nichols (Kenyon).
Lacrosse: Tim Blue, St. Sebastian’s (Skidmore);. Mike Fanning, Needham (Wheaton); Joey Loeber, Chelmsford (Penn State); Colin Norred, Hopkinton (Springfield); Ian Olenik, Governor’s Academy (Providence); Chad Palumbo, Noble and Greenough (Princeton); Nicholas Polymeros, Natick (Assumption).