Caitlin Klick-McHugh knows exactly what is at stake for the Westford Academy swimming and diving teams.
For the girls, it was a matter of dominance: the Grey Ghosts have strung together six consecutive undefeated seasons, winning eight of the last nine MIAA Division 1 titles.
For the boys, it was a matter of consistency: they hoisted the Division 1 trophy in 2015 and have finished in the top six every year since 2011.
And in a winter in which sectional and state meets will not be held because of the pandemic, Westford was determined to continue its run of excellence.
“Swimming and diving is a great sport in that kids know what their personal best is and they always want to push that limit,” Klick-McHugh said. “So just trying to improve on an individual level is another motivation as well.”
In December, the Westford School Committee gave the green light for swimming and diving, along with gymnastics, Alpine skiing, and Nordic skiing. But in the process, the committee axed the basketball and hockey seasons, by a 4-3 vote, citing the two sports as high-risk activities.
Klick-McHugh said she believes the use of virtual meets played a vital role in allowing swimming to continue; it was presented as an alternative method of competition. While virtual meets have sapped the usual energy and atmosphere at swim meets, they provided a much-needed lifeline to the program.
“We’re just thankful we’ve been able to have a season to get back in the pool,” said senior captain Madison Leong, who is committed to Hamilton College. “It took us a bit longer to get back in shape, but now we’re finally looking better as a group every day and I think this is going to turn out really well for everyone.”
The girls extended their undefeated run with a 4-0 record, including a 108-77 win over Concord-Carlisle, last season’s Division 1 runner-up. The girls’ squad had originally scheduled a meet against Weston and Wayland last Sunday, but it was postponed because of snow. The boys have similarly posted a 5-0 record and are currently awaiting results from last Saturday’s virtual meet against Wayland, the reigning Division 2 champion, and Weston.
The biggest indication of Westford Academy’s success lies squarely in the swimmers’ feedback of their time with the team.
Shortly after Westford Academy’s senior night virtual swim meet, the seniors filled out a questionnaire that asked them to reflect upon their years with the program. The prevalent theme throughout the questionnaire? A great team culture.
Before the pandemic, the swim teams would bond through a variety of different activities out of the pool such as “spags,” a routine pasta dinner followed by mini-games, and scavenger hunts. The activities not only helped ease new players into the squad but also tightened the chemistry within the team.
“Spags is a time to loosen up and have fun,” said Sam Granger, one of three captains for the boys’ team. “We normally do games after we were done eating, like the first spag every year we would always do a captain-led get-to-know-you game where we pick on the freshmen as like the initiation.”
“[Klick-McHugh] has done a great job keeping everyone motivated and keeping us in good spirits,” said Leong. “By doing different activities like that, it’s definitely connected us to each other and helped us really enjoy the season.”
But the presence of the pandemic has completely changed the pre-pandemic routines.
With practices split into three groups, the swimmers now practice only three days per week instead of five. Without the valuable in-person bonding experiences, the teams are using online group chats to attempt to fill the void and avoid breaking COVID regulations.
“The biggest place we’re missing out on this year is riding the bus together because if you’re on the way home from a meet you’ve won, it’s like a big party where we have tons of music and cheering and if we lose, we console each other,” Granger said.
On a similar note, Klick-McHugh insisted that Westford Academy’s success stems from the leadership qualities of its seniors year in and year out. The Grey Ghosts have 17 seniors and seven team captains this year: Kylie Hoar, Julia Tracanna, and Leong lead the girls’ team, Matt Song, Ryan Pillion, and Granger lead the boys’ team, and Kaely Harding is the dive captain.
“When you have an awesome group of senior captains like we do this year, it just sets the tone for the following three years,” Klick-McHugh said. “We’ve been so lucky to have so many great swimmers and divers, not only talent-wise but also personality-wise, coming through the program that it all just seems to keep going.”
▪ The Cape Ann League championships are being held virtually through Sunday; officials will compile the results by Monday. Hamilton-Wenham coach Natalie Kliss said that a virtual conference championship, coupled with no MIAA Tournament severely stunted her swimmers’ motivation. But completing the season in good health is something to be proud of.
“The season had many challenges and changes to the team, but we were able to complete the season,” Kliss said. “[The lack of competitiveness] had an impact on the swimmers’ performance which impacted their times.”
Even so, the Generals turned in solid performances to finish off the season. Senior diver Micah Katz ventured into swimming for his senior year, recording a season-high 295.05 six-dive score on the boards and a 1:14.47 100 breaststroke, narrowly edging teammate Ryan Luo (1:14.51).
▪ Also in the CAL virtual league championship, Newburyport’s Austin Hyer put on a clinic for the Triton co-op, which also includes swimmers from Pentucket. The junior dropped six seconds off of his personal best in the 200 freestyle, setting a school record with a time of 1:58.94. Josh Thibeau set the previous record of 1:59.07 in 2019.
Hyer then went on to set another school record in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:09.97, breaking Thibeau’s record of 1:11.91.
Hyer wasn’t the only one in top form, however. Pentucket sophomore Henry Brien bettered his school record in the 100 butterfly with a time of 58.87, a half-second drop from the mark he set last season. On the girls’ side, Newburyport freshman Abriana Constrom swam in 1:02.44 in the 100 backstroke and 57.91 in the 100 freestyle, both personal bests that would have qualified her for the state championship.
“What these kids accomplished this year given all the restrictions they were swimming under was nothing short of amazing, and I’m so proud of them,” Triton first-year coach Rebecca Burrell said.
▪ As the season wraps up, the Dual County League hosted its diving championship Wednesday. With her six-dive score of 329.6, Weston diver Charlotte Martinkus broke her DCL Championship meet record, which she set last year.
Correspondent Emma Healy contributed to this story.