NEWARK — Ursuline’s swim team didn’t have a single event champion on Feb. 25, but that’s fine with them. The Raiders’ depth allowed them to build a lead, and a third-place finish in the final event — the 400-yard freestyle relay — was enough for them to defeat the hard-charging Charter School of Wilmington for the DIAA girls state championship at the Rawstrom Natatorium at the University of Delaware.
Ursuline finished with 298 points six better than the Force. Tower Hill, the three-time defending state champs, placed third with 279.
It was the eighth title for the Raiders, and their first since 2017, six years ago to the day. Natalie Johnson was inside the natatorium as a spectator the last time Ursuline took home the trophy, and this time, she celebrated on the deck with her teammates.
“It’s just so exciting knowing that I got to be part of something so special,” said Johnson, a senior.
Her teammate and classmate, Mary Kate Keegan, said the feeling was better than she anticipated.
“This was a shock to me, but definitely a good shock,” she said.
The Raiders snapped a three-year reign by Tower Hill, who finished third this season. The Hillers appeared to be the team in the best position to threaten the Raiders late in the meet, but the depth of Wilmington Charter allowed the Force to overtake Tower for second place and nearly elevated them to the win. The Raiders finished with 298 team points, while Charter came in at 292. Tower Hill had 279.
Raiders coach Kelly Ellis said the depth of this year’s team was the key to their success at the state meet. Ursuline picked up points in most events, so despite not winning any, they were in the lead for much of the day.
“It’s the deepest team I’ve ever had,” Ellis said. It’s the biggest team I’ve ever had going to the state meet in all my years coaching this team.
“We didn’t have anybody be a state champ individually, but that’s what it says about having a deep team. I was very excited to see the new kids I had coming in. I’m super proud of all of them. They really worked hard.”
Ellis said she wasn’t keeping track of points as the meet progressed. She figured if her team swam like it was capable in the closing events, it would be successful. She knew the Hillers and Force were hot on their tails.
“We knew we had to watch out for Charter, too, because the depth, that’s what happened to us last year. They came up from behind and got us last year. That’s what helped us this year,” she said.
Charter jumped out to an early lead with a win in the first event, the 200-yard medley relay. The Raiders were a hair under two seconds behind, taking second place. Caitlin Horning and Isabella Caraballo swam the first two legs, with Keegan and Johnson closing it out.
The Raiders scored significant points in the 200-yard individual medley, where Keegan came in second and Eliza Johnson sixth, but Wilmington Charter’s Alexandra Phillips and Delanie McKenzie finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Johnson was fifth in the 50 free, with Samantha Weinert taking eighth, but Tower Hill had two finishers ahead of them. Charter scored in the 100 butterfly as Georgia Colborn won and Phillips took third. Horning (fourth) and Keegan (fifth) were right behind them. Weinert also earned eighth-place points, but on this day, every point counted.
Johnson was second in the 100 free, the best of five Catholic school swimmers to finish in the top eight. Maddie Testa of Padua was third, and Saint Mark’s Rowen O’Donoghue was fourth. Elizabeth Maher of Archmere took sixth, and Padua’s Logan Bagley was eighth. In the 500 free, Caraballo earned fourth-place points for the Raiders, a few spots behind the winner, Tower’s Lainey Mullins, who closed out a storied high school career.
The first free relay, the 200, was won by Tower Hill, with the Raiders about a half-second behind. That team included Clare Kornacki, Horning, Weinert and Eliza Johnson. Charter was third, and Padua’s team of Testa, Bagley, Elsa Lutcher and Megan Benson came in fourth as the Pandas put together a strong outing.
Colburn gave Charter first-place points in the 100 backstroke, but Horning and Eliza Johnson were second and third, respectively. Charter had two other finishers in the event, helping them inch closer to the Raiders. In the 100-yard breaststroke, Charter’s Rozlyn Wynn was the top finisher among the three contenders in third place.
Tower and Charter did what they could in the final event, the 400 free relay, but a third-place finish for Ursuline was enough to recapture the title. Eliza Johnson swam the first leg, followed by Keegan, Caraballo and Natalie Johnson. Keegan said they knew they had the lead, but it wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“We really weren’t thinking about that. We just wanted to give it our all. I didn’t look at the scores. I didn’t want to know,” she said.
Keegan said the numbers were key for the Raiders success. They went undefeated for the second consecutive regular season, with huge numbers wanting to be part of the team this year.
“The depth this year was insane,” she said. We’ve never had a team this big. Sophomore year, we placed second, so we’ve been waiting for this one.”
Johnson said the team got to UD on Saturday ready to go. “I was ready. I was super-excited for today.”
Keegan said the swimmers definitely noticed the Raiders’ cheering section inside the cozy natatorium. Many of the Raiders’ supporters were visible in their red shirts and loud voices.
“We both (Keegan and Johnson) swam during Covid when no one was up there. It’s great that everyone’s back. The support is awesome.”
Ellis said one of the best parts of being the state champion — this is her third title — is seeing young ladies who were part of the program when they were students.
They’re excited to see that their team that they were on still win or beat the teams that they always wanted to beat,” she said. “They’re still excited, even after they leave.”
Padua had a solid afternoon and finished fourth. Saint Mark’s tied with Middletown for 10th, and Archmere was 12th of the 22 teams.
All photos by Mike Lang.