Cherry Hill East girls swimming pulls off stunner to win state championship

The Cougars won their first Public Group A state championship since 1999 when they defeated four-time defending champion Bridgewater-Raritan last weekend.

For the first time in 21 years, Cherry Hill East girls swimming is a state champion after the Cougars took down four-time defending champion Bridgewater-Raritan, 88-82, in the Public Group A state championship. Cherry Hill East had lost to Bridgewater-Raritan in the state finals the previous three seasons.

The night before Cherry Hill East girls swimming’s Public Group A state final meet against four-time defending champion Bridgewater-Raritan, the team got together for a pasta party and decided to watch the movie, “Miracle.” The film tells the story of the U.S. men’s hockey team’s stunning upset against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics and Feb. 22 —  the date of the Cougars’ meet with Bridgewater-Raritan — was the 40th anniversary of the game.

Did Cherry Hill East watch the film because of the anniversary? Were they trying to get motivated to pull off a major upset of their own?

Not quite. The Cougars said the reason they chose to watch “Miracle” was because senior Grace Yoon had wanted to see it. It wasn’t until the movie ended and the date of the Miracle on Ice that the team realized the significance of the film.

“It gave us an extra confidence boost,” senior Kylie Priehs said. “Everything was aligning.”

The next day, Cherry Hill East made history of its own, winning the program’s first state championship since 1999 with an 88-82 win over Bridgewater-Raritan. On an afternoon where South Jersey swept the public girls swimming state titles (Moorestown won Public B and Haddonfield Public C), the Cougars pulled off a Miracle on Ice-like upset, handing the state’s No. 1 team its first defeat since 2016 and ending the program’s four-year stranglehold on the Public A title.

The state championship meet featured the same two teams as the previous three years, with Bridgewater-Raritan defeating Cherry Hill East in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 state finals.

While the two schools in the pool were the same, Cherry Hill East felt it was a much different team this year. A strong core of fast seniors led by Yoon, Karolyn Merch and Brianna DiSanti teamed up with a talented freshman class that included Emily Fekete, Hope Haney and Meghan Finnegan. The newcomers gave the Cougars an unprecedented amount of depth and helped them cruise to a perfect record against South Jersey competition.

“For the seniors at least, we had been looking forward to 2020, because we knew this year was going to be our strongest,” Merch said.

“We knew we had more depth. We knew there was a real chance,” DiSanti added.

As good as the Cougars were all season long, their confidence really began to build in the Public Group A state semifinals against Morristown. In 2019, Cherry Hill East barely escaped the semifinals, edging out Morristown in the final event, 86-84. This year, it was a different story as the Cougars beat Morristown handily, 109-61. That result combined with the team’s season-long success allowed Cherry Hill East to walk into the pool at The College of New Jersey for the state final with much more confidence than previous years.

“In years past, when we walked in, we were intimidated by (Bridgewater-Raritan),” junior Annie Behm said. “You go in, you want to win, but in years past, I don’t think we had as much faith as we had this year.”

“It’s bigger than you,” Fekete added about the state final. “I wasn’t nervous for myself. I just had to go and do the best I could because I couldn’t let my team down.”

It was all about the team for the Cougars throughout the season. Realizing everyone couldn’t swim in the A lanes every meet, Fekete noted she and and all of her teammates embraced swimming in the B and C lanes in order to score the most points possible for the Cougars. This was most apparent in the final event of the state championship, when head coach Anita Bowser, realizing her team needed to finish first and third place in the 400-yard freestyle relay to clinch the victory, decided to split up her top relay team.

“I knew that we had no problem winning (the 400 free relay) but I wanted to make sure we got third place,” Bowser said. “So we decided to split the relays. I was asking Annie and Grace who wanted to go in the B (lane), since they’re neck and neck with times.”

Yoon, one of the best swimmers in the state, opted to swim anchor with the B relay team and helped it finish in second place behind Cherry Hill East’s A relay team. The one-two finish clinched the championship for the Cougars.

“I just knew that we had to get third, so that was my goal since I was finishing,” Yoon said. “But it was really cool to see a lot of my teammates step up.”

The smiles, the tears and the celebratory dip in the pool were almost a blur for the team’s seniors in the days following the championship. Even last Wednesday, as the team gathered together to talk about the championship with South Jersey Sports Weekly, many of the seniors said the enormity of what they achieved still hadn’t hit them. But all of them were in agreement about one thing: There was no better way to finish off a high school career.

“It’s the best closing statement we could ever make,” DiSanti said.

Cherry Hill East’s seniors show off their state championship trophy. Top row: Grace Yoon, Lauren Smith, Tattiyanna George and Isabel Andino. Bottom row: Kylie Preihs, Brianna DiSanti, Maddy Kagan and Karolyn Merch.