When it comes to figuring out which three teams are the best in South Jersey girls swimming, there’s no debate.
For the third consecutive year, Cherry Hill East, Haddonfield and Moorestown had little trouble earning South Jersey’s three sectional championships. The Quakers kicked off Thursday with a 103-67 win over Mainland to win South Jersey Public Group B, the Cougars followed with a 111-59 win over Egg Harbor Township to win South Public Group A and the Bulldawgs concluded the day with a 103-63 win over Middle Township to repeat as South Public Group C champions.
While it has been the same teams winning sectional titles over the past three years, the storylines surrounding these teams have evolved. For Cherry Hill East, lThursday was a huge moment for a talented group of seniors led by Grace Yoon, Karolyn Merch and Brianna DiSanti. The seniors played a big role in lifting the Cougars to a sectional title during their freshman season in 2017. It was Cherry Hill East’s first section title in four years at the time.
On Thursday, the 2020 senior class got to lift the sectional championship trophy for a fourth consecutive year. It is the first time Cherry Hill East has won four straight sectional titles since the Cougars won four in a row from 1997 to 2000.
“This is probably one of the last times me and the rest of the senior class will be at GCIT,” Yoon said. “We’ve been swimming here years and years. Even just being in this facility is a little bit bittersweet.”
Looking back on the past four years, Merch believes this year’s senior class was special because of the amount of talent it had as well as the dedication of the swimmers.
“The chemistry with the seniors is all cohesive,” Merch said. “We get along really well. We really have a connection with each other that is all positive.”
Cherry Hill East established itself as South Jersey’s top team this year, going undefeated in the South Jersey Swim League and taking first place in the South Jersey Invitational. Still, the Cougars entered this week with one goal remaining: winning the program’s first state championship in 21 years.
Out of the three South Jersey champions, Haddonfield has the longest active streak of sectional titles. The Bulldawgs’ victory over Middle Township yesterday gave the team its sixth straight South Jersey Public Group C championship. Since the NJSIAA expanded the swimming playoffs in 2015 to include three public school groups, Haddonfield has claimed every South Public C title.
The Bulldawgs have maintained a lock on the title because of their ability to annually bring in talented freshmen to take over for the seniors who graduated. This year, the Bulldawgs have gotten key contributions from freshmen such as Lilliana Kuball, Alexandra Brown and Molly McDonnell to supplement the fast times from talented seniors such as Sophia Rollo and Carly Griffin as well as standout sophomores Lillian Derivaux and Katherine Skelly.
A member of Haddonfield’s 2019 state championship team as a freshman, Skelly believes the Bulldawgs’ lineup features the perfect combination of fast young swimmers and senior leadership.
“Everybody contributed to the team,” said Skelly, who won two races in Haddonfield’s sectional final win. “It’s not just all of the seniors swimming and the upperclassmen. The underclassmen get in there and they place and get points and help us win the meets.”
Haddonfield builds chemistry in a number of ways. The swimmers frequently go to dinners after meets, giving them time to bond outside of the pool. The team also started a new tradition this postseason of singing the alma mater after each playoff win.
The depth of the Haddonfield program has made the team an annual contender both in South Jersey and at the state level. As exciting as winning last week’s sectional trophy was, Skelly believes she’ll be lifting more trophies before her time at Haddonfield ends.
“It’s definitely really exciting knowing that we have more opportunities in the coming years,” she said.
Thursday’s sectional finals also gave swimmers in the outside lanes a chance to shine. Moorestown needed some fast times from swimmers in the B and C lanes in order to defeat Mainland in what was the closest meet of the afternoon. One of those C lane swimmers was Moorestown junior Sophia Sapnas. Late in last week’s meet, she was swimming in the C lane for Moorestown in the 100-yard backstroke. Heading into the meet, Sapnas was hoping to swim a time of 1:03 and earn the Quakers some much needed points.
After Sapnas touched the wall, she looked up at the scoreboard and her jaw dropped. She finished with a time of 1:01.72, more than a second less than the goal she set prior to the meet. Even better, Sapnas finished in third place, a high finish for any swimmer positioned in the outside lane of the pool.
“I did it for the whole team and my parents,” the junior said. “I just swam a (time of) 1:01. I don’t really know what happened.”
Prior to Sapnas joining the team, Moorestown hadn’t won a sectional title since 2004 and a state championship since 1995. Both of those droughts were snapped in 2018, when the Quakers won both a sectional and state title. Moorestown defended both titles successfully in 2019 and extended its run of consecutive sectional championships to three last week.
“When I was a freshman, winning my first state championship was amazing,” Sapnas said. “I was not expecting that. Now to get this far in my third year, it’s just amazing.”
The lasting memory Sapnas will have from last week’s meet isn’t lifting the sectional championship trophy, but rather the moment when she climbed out of the pool after her season-best swim and was embraced by a number of her teammates.
“With the coaches and the swimmers, we really just help each other with all of it,” Sapnas said.
“It’s amazing, the bond we have, I’ve never experienced that with any team.”