For Westford Academy girls’ swimmers and divers, it’s the 40-minute bus ride to practice at the University of Massachusetts Lowell each day that helps forge a championship team of 45.
For Concord-Carlisle, it’s the positive reinforcement that swimmers of all grades and abilities share poolside after a night meet at Beede Swim & Fitness Center that creates a supportive program.
For coaches, it’s the weekly competition in the Dual County League that brings out the best in every squad and sets the league up to dominate the winter postseason year after year.
On Jan. 3, defending state champion Westford traveled to Concord in a battle of the top two girls’ teams from last year’s Division 1 State Championships. DCL schools were also a force in Division 2, where Wayland is the defending girls’ state champion, while Weston was third last year. The Acton-Boxborough girls were fifth at the Division 1 championships during the fall season.
At last winter’s North Sectional, DCL teams took the top four girls’ spots with Westford first, Wayland second, Concord-Carlisle third, and Weston fourth.
The Westford boys were fourth with Lincoln-Sudbury eighth, Newton South ninth, and Acton-Boxborough 10th at Division 1 States last winter, while Wayland won the boys’ Division 2 state title with Wayland third.
“A lot of the programs have a great tradition,” said Westford girls’ coach Caitlin Klick-McHugh after the team’s 100-78 victory against Concord-Carlisle. “We’ve always looked up to the Waylands, the Westons, the Concord-Carlisles, just through all those years when you’ve had solid, solid programs. When that’s your competition year after year you really have to rise to the occasion. So really being pushed by those programs, our program was able to grow as well.”
The Westford girls have been able to grow to towering heights as winners of seven of the last eight Division 1 state crowns. Westford racked up 439.5 points in winning its fourth-straight title last winter, with Concord-Carlisle finishing second at 186 points.
“It’s just motivating,” Westford senior Emily Blatt, a member of the defending state champion 200 medley relay team, said of the DCL dual meets. “You know every meet is a big meet and that every meet someone out there wants to beat you. So you know you have to swim hard. It’s like a championship meet every meet.”
Westford’s preparation for those challenges includes the long bus ride to UMass Lowell for after-school practice. The swimmers then cram seven to a lane in the six lanes of the UMass Lowell pool for a workout that has to be as efficient as possible with only 90 minutes of pool time before the bus ride back.
“You definitely get to know people when there are seven [practicing] to a lane,” said junior Halle Moore. “You build a lot of camaraderie. We switch it up with freestyle people and [individual medley] people so you learn a lot watching them as well.”
“The long bus ride also shows how much people want to swim, and they want to be there,” added junior Michaela Martin, a member of last winter’s state champion medley relay and 400 freestyle relay teams. “They are willing to sacrifice the time to go because they want to be at practice.”
The Concord-Carlisle swimmers have the comparative luxury of being able to walk across campus to the spacious Beede Center, but they put in their time as well. After dropping both the boys’ and girls’ meet to Westford on Jan. 3, the mood was far from discouraged as both teams spent more than a half-hour sharing words of encouragement during a marathon meeting.
“I think it’s super helpful,” said Concord-Carlisle senior captain Aliya Hosford. “I didn’t have the best swims tonight. But it’s helpful to hear everyone’s positivity. It makes the meet. It makes sure that you leave the pool on a good note regardless of how you swam.”
“They don’t have to be major things,” noted senior captain Hailey Beyer. “Sometimes even the smallest things make a big difference to let everyone know they are being looked at.”
Concord-Carlisle coach Matt Goldberg said creating that feeling of inclusiveness is a philosophy he sees throughout the league.
“Everyone has a place and that’s something that a lot of the DCL teams do,” he said. “We have 83 people [boys and girls combined] and they get really close. It’s hard to believe how they make 83 friends in such a short time. But they do.”
The DCL connection runs deep. Not only have many of the swimmers been on the same summer teams in the Colonial Swimming and Diving League since they were as young as 6 years old, but many swimmers in the DCL have been competing against each other in the summer for a decade or more in the recreation league that includes Concord, Wayland, Weston, and Westford.
“It’s really pushed me,” said Blatt, who joined the summer league when she was 8 years old. “That league taught me how to swim. I dreamed of being like those older girls on the Westford team. So to be like that, and come here and win States, and be part of this team, is like what I always wanted.”
Scott Souza can be reached at ScottSouza@journalist.com.