MHS swimmers thrilled to be back

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By: 
Dennis Semrau
Nick Chirafisi and Middleton’s boys swimming team squared off against Verona/Mount Horeb in a ‘virtual’ meet on Jan. 8./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

It had been nearly 11 months since the Middleton boys’ swimming and diving team was able to pursue its passion in the pool.

But the agonizing wait finally came to an end last week, and senior Koby Renfert was ecstatic.

“It made me appreciate how great of an opportunity it is to compete,” Renfert said after Middleton opened its delayed season last Friday and Saturday.

“Normally it’s part of the routine. You go to the meets and compete and have fun. But because there aren’t many meets, it’s made me take a step back and realize that they are pretty important and it’s something I’m going to remember for a long time.”

The Cardinals were eager to become the school’s first sports program to compete since Middleton’s girls’ basketball team qualified for the WIAA Division 1 state tournament last March.

And while the wait was worth it for the Cardinals’ swimmers — there was no diving competition — there were quite a few adjustments that had to be made when they opened their season in ‘virtual’ fashion.

Middleton, the defending WIAA Division 1 state champion, dropped its season-opener, as Verona Area/Mount Horeb won six of eight events on its way to a 76-52 victory.

Despite the loss, though, Cardinals’ senior co-captain Alex Starr looked on the bright side of getting back in the pool.

“I was pretty happy because I didn’t think we’d be able to compete at all this season,” said Starr, who competed in the 50-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke and is also one of the Cardinals’ five divers. “Getting back in (the pool) felt really good. It just felt natural.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and health guidelines set by Public Health Madison & Dane County, there were no fans in the stands, no throngs of cheering swimmers on the deck and no opponent in the pool.

Each program’s swimmers competed in their own pools, under the supervision of meet officials. No relay events were held. Times were then compared to determine final scores. After being limited to several small group practices, Middleton was eager to get back to work.

“Just getting the guys’ feet in the water and swimming made it special,” Middleton coach Danny Lynam said. “We had some guys swimming club, but the club scene is kind of in chaos, too. The hardest part has been the uncertainty. Who knows what we will be doing a month from now.”

Renfert agreed the meet was about more than earning a team victory or bragging rights over a nearby rival.

“It was nice to compete because I hadn’t had a high school meet in a long time,” said Renfert, a co-captain, who competed in the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke. “We’re very fortunate that swimming isn’t really a contact sport, so we’re able to compete to at least some degree this year. A lot of sports haven’t had that kind of luck.

“It was a good first meet. I know a lot of people on the Verona team, so it was exciting to race them even if it was virtually.”

Verona/Mount Horeb was paced by junior Oscar Best, who won the 100-yard butterfly (51.33 seconds) and the 100 backstroke (:55.09), and senior Conner Arneson, who swept the 200 freestyle (1:52.07) and 500 freestyle (5:01.77) titles.

Best, who placed third at state in the 100 butterfly last season, said he was pleased to have an opportunity to compete after so much uncertainty all fall.

But he admitted being curious as to how the Wildcats would perform.

“I don’t think anyone was sure what was going to happen,” Best said. “But as a team, we wanted to see where each other is at. I was more excited to watch other people swim than see what I could do. But for the most part, everyone was just happy to be back.”

Middleton’s only event winner was sophomore Jack Madoch, a returning state qualifier, who claimed titles in the 50 freestyle (:22.54) and 100 freestyle (:49.64).

“Jack came in looking sharp in the 50 free and 100 free,” Lynam said of Madoch. “Colby Livezey had a nice swim in the 100 backstroke, taking second. That was an unexpected swim for him, which was nice to see. We had some good swims. It was nice to see how we stack up with somebody else.”

Middleton’s squad was split into six groups of eight swimmers each with three groups competing Friday evening and three groups competing on Saturday morning at the Middleton pool.

Lynam said the Cardinals competed the same way they’ve been holding practices.

That included wearing masks when they weren’t in the pool and socially distancing. Each group also left the pool before the next group could enter for warm-ups.

“We’ve been doing one-hour practices with 15 minutes between each group,” Lynam said of the Cardinals, whose practice time has been limited since getting the go-ahead in mid-December. “We just kept that same pattern because guys were used to it. They came in, we warmed them up for about 15 minutes and then we just ran through the events.

“It was tough in some aspects because some of the events were closer together than normal because we didn’t have a full meet lineup. It was a little quicker pace than usual, but at the same time we could slow it down a little bit, too, between the groups and take time getting out of the water to give them a little more rest.”

Verona/Mount Horeb’s 25-member squad was split into three groups and was able to complete its competition on Friday evening in its new state-of-the-art aquatic center.

“It all ended up working out well,” Lynam said. “It’s hard when you’re swimming against nothing. You don’t know how the other team is doing and who on the other team swam what (events). It’s like competing against an invisible opponent.”

Cardinals’ junior co-captain Blaise Lin, who competed in the 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke events, said the meet “brought some normalcy back” in a year that also includes virtual schooling.

“Once we started holding practices, I started getting hope back that we might have some kind of a season,” Lin said. “That was a real good feeling.

“I’m happy the seniors can swim. It would be hard to have the season taken away from them.”

Verona/Mount Horeb coach Bill Wuerger, who is in his 21st season, said the atmosphere took some getting used to.

“It was very different from any high school meet that we’ve been a part of before,” he said. “It was very quiet.

“No parents or fans were in the stands cheering on a close race. Just the fact that we couldn’t see our competition, racing against invisible competition was strange. But the guys did the best they could under the circumstances.”

Swimmers from Verona Area High School were participating in their second competition of the season after competing in a season-opening triple dual at Sauk Prairie with Madison Edgewood on Jan. 5.

Mount Horeb’s swimmers, though, made their season debut against Middleton because they weren’t able to obtain permission for competition outside Dane County in time to compete at Sauk Prairie.

Wuerger was pleased to have his team intact albeit having to compete in separate groups.

“I give them credit,” Wuerger said. “They made the best of it. They swam well and were happy with the results.”

Lin said he was grateful for the opportunity to compete despite having to make several changes from the Cardinals’ normal routine.

“We had such a small group, and it was different from meets where we could have spectators,” Lin said. “You couldn’t draw from the crowd and get energy from everyone cheering you on. It was hard to get psyched up for your event.

“But it was good to see each other and cheer each other on in our small groups. It was good camaraderie among us. I was glad to see the team coming together to cheer each other on with such a few amount of people.”

Lynam said it was a surreal feeling, competing in a near-empty pool.

“It was so quiet in the pool tonight, that you could hear the timing system beeping every time someone touched the pad,” Lynam said following Friday night’s portion of the meet. “It was so sterile for a swim meet where normally it’s just absolute chaos and madness.

“You could hear a pin drop on the pool deck tonight. It’s just a strange environment. But you know, it’s what we’ve got to do right now and we made it happen.”

The Big Eight Conference isn’t holding league competitions or crowning conference champions in any of its winter sports.

But Lynam is holding out hope there might be some sort of virtual Big Eight meet competition. The only other competition scheduled for the Cardinals is a virtual meet against Sun Prairie on Friday and Saturday although Lynam said he has contacted nearly every team in the state.

Middleton also will be unable to host a sectional meet due to Dane County restrictions, leaving the Cardinals awaiting word of a new sectional site. The Division 1 state meet won’t be on the University of Wisconsin campus but is set for Feb. 6 at Waukesha South. Diving and swimming sectionals are Jan. 29-30 in the shortened season.

“The last meet we hosted was sectionals,” Lynam said. “I was glad we were able to make it a safe environment so far. I haven’t heard of any issues. I think we’re doing it right. It’s nice to know we are doing the right thing in the long run.”

 

VERONA AREA/MOUNT HOREB 76, MIDDLETON 52

200-yard freestyle: 1, Conner Arneson, VA/MH, 1:52.07; 2, Nick Chirafisi, M, 1:52.85; 3, Joe McNerney, M, 1:55.78; 4, Christopher Lofts, VA/MH, 1:56.91; 5, Dane Sickler, VA/MH, 1:57.03; 6, Benja Niesen, M, 2:00.67.

200 individual medley: 1, Avery Blas, VA/MH 2:06.73; 2, Tyler Choedak, M, 2:08.73; 3, Ben Wellnitz, VA/MH, 2:08.85; 4, Theo Wolf, M, 2:10.03; 5, Koby Renfert, M, 2:12.91; 6, Liam Updegrove, VA/MH, 2:23.30.

50 freestyle: 1, Jack Madoch, M, :22.54; 2, Nathan Rozeboom, VA/MH, :22.95; 3, Max McCartney, VA/MH, :23.12; 4, Alex Starr, M, :23.19; 5, Caleb Rost, VA/MH, :24.14; 6, Cowan Vitense, M, :24.59.

100 butterfly: 1, Oscar Best, VA/MH, :51.33; 2, Luke Bennin, VA/MH, :54.51; 3, Chirafisi, M, :55.37; 4, Emre Guney, M, :59.16; 5, Vitense, M, 1:04.88; 6, George Rothamer, VA/MH, 1:06.07.

100-freestyle: 1, Madoch, M, :49.64; 2, McCartney, VA/MH, :50.36; 3, Lofts, VA/MH, :53.48; 4, Noah Dorn, M, :54.31; 5, Updegrove, VA/MH, :55.97; 6, McNerney, M, :56.19.

500-freestyle: 1, Arneson, VA/MH, 5:01.77; 2, Wellnitz, VA/MH, 5:12.42; 3, Wolf, M, 5:26.43; 4, Sickler, VA/MH, 5:30.51; 5, Ian Bohachek, Ian, M, 5:35.80; 6, Niesen, M, 5:47.61.

100-backstroke: 1, Best, VA/MH, :55.09; 2, Colby Livezey, M, :58.78; 3, Choedak, M, :59.18; 4, Starr, M, 1:00.22; 5, Rost, VA/MH, 1:05.67.

100-breaststroke: 1, Rozeboom, VA/MH, 1:01.03; 2, Bennin, VA/MH, 1:02.57; 3, Blas, VA/MH, 1:06.23; 4, Renfert, M, 1:10.80; 5, Caleb Davey, M, 1:11.55; 6, Bohachek, M, 1:11.58.

JV: Middleton 65, Verona Area/Mount Horeb 62.

 

  

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