Girls’ swimming and diving storylines: Tigers grabbing late momentum | Sports

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URBANA — It’s been a slow and steady rise for Michelle Zimmerman‘s athletes.

Recent results show with certainty that there is growth in collective performance for the Urbana girls’ swimming and diving team.

The Tigers won every event of last Saturday’s triangular with Peoria and Peoria Manual. They nearly did the same on Wednesday versus Mahomet-Seymour, taking all but the 100-yard breaststroke during an 85-55 victory.

“It’s been great. Great place to be in heading into sectionals,” Zimmerman said. “They’re figuring it out together. They’re really pushing each other and encouraging each other.”

Urbana closes its regular season Saturday at Bloomington in a triangular that also involves Danville. The following weekend, the Tigers and all other local programs will compete in the Champaign Central Sectional at Unit 4 Pool. It’ll serve as the last showcase of 2020 since the IHSA state meet was canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not going to be as noisy. There’s no cheering (from fans),” said Zimmerman, referencing a state gathering restriction that will keep spectators out of Unit 4 Pool. “But I think we’re coming in with our goals and really coming in to just see what we can do with the work we’ve put in this season.”

Some of Zimmerman’s strongest showings have come from underclassmen. It’s appropriate considering she boasts just two seniors — Alyssa Pankau and Kira Buford-Rucker — among her roster of 15.

Junior Honora Hoey and sophomore Elena Poulosky each won multiple events in the dual with M-S.

“They are both fierce competitors, and they really love to race,” Zimmerman said of the duo.

Sophomore Tess Urichoechea was a frontrunner in one race during each of the last two meets. Freshmen Avalon Ogolsky and Lily Gilbert each placed first in an event at the meet involving Peoria and Peoria Manual, and freshman diver Gwen Schiff topped the field against M-S.

But there’s plenty to be said about Pankau and Buford-Rucker as well. Pankau bested all comers in the 500 freestyle during each of her last two tries, and Buford-Rucker is a force of positivity who has tutored Schiff on the diving board and many of her teammates off of it.

That’s why Zimmerman was so glad to conduct a senior night Wednesday for Pankau and Buford-Rucker, complete with a select few members of each girl’s family in attendance.

“That was probably the most emotional I’ve gotten all season,” Zimmerman said. “We weren’t sure we were going to be able to have that moment with COVID. So I think that all came to fruition (Wednesday) where you saw a lot of tears and a lot of emotion.”

Bulldogs battle for pool time

MAHOMET — Dean Ekberg isn’t operating with exactly the roster he figured he’d have this girls’ swimming and diving season. The Mahomet-Seymour coach admitted some girls opted not to come out in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

That said, Ekberg and assistant Erika Ross still oversee 20 athletes — with just five seniors among them.

“Just been really good from the people who are left. … The JV really stepped up, and those that were left of the varsity,” Ekberg said. “Everybody’s just killed their times, and I’m just really proud of them.”

The biggest hurdle Ekberg faces also is felt by the Bulldog girls’ tennis team: lack of a home facility in which to practice and hold events.

Ekberg typically would bring his athletes to the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center, but the pandemic has prevented that from transpiring this year. Instead, M-S heads to a four-lane pool in LeRoy for repetitions.

“I’m just really thankful they let us use the pool,” Ekberg said. “It’s not ideal, but you’ve got to do the whole spacing thing. It’s a zoo trying to do that in a four-lane pool.”

There’s also no board for Ekberg’s lone diver, senior Elise Hertling, which makes her training especially challenging.

But the Bulldogs haven’t surrendered their season because of these difficulties.

Seniors Natalie Heaton and Olivia Ross, junior Anna Lagacy and sophomore Kiera McCoy have posted some of the fastest swim times for M-S. Lagacy prevented Urbana from collecting a clean sweep in Wednesday’s dual meet between the teams, as her 100-yard breaststroke time of 1 minute, 27.43 seconds took the top spot by about two-tenths of a second.

“I just said to my assistant … even if we don’t win a single meet this year — which we have won some meets — we just decided we’re going to pour our lives into these kids and (have) everybody get their best times,” Ekberg said. “So now we’re into our taper, just try to get ready for sectionals on the 24th. … Hoping for top 10 (as a team). We’ll see what happens.”

Sabers see numbers grow this season

CHAMPAIGN — Angie Deptula is accustomed to coaching a pretty small St. Thomas More girls’ swimming and diving lineup. She had just enough athletes last season to put together relay units, if everyone was healthy.

But just two of those girls — junior Abby Deptula, Angie’s daughter, and sophomore Hannah Goebel — would be returning in 2020. So how are the Sabers presently carrying six girls into meets?

The loss of a fall volleyball season, as part of the IHSA’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

Senior Maci Walters, juniors Anna McClure and Caroline Kerr and sophomore Mary Beth Franey joined the fold once volleyball was shifted to spring, and they’ve given STM’s pool crew quite a boost.

“We’re having a good season,” Angie Deptula said. “It’s been kind of a challenge for us since we don’t have our own pool. … If they’re disappointed (about that), they don’t really show it.”

The Sabers were sponsored to swim at Champaign Country Club in September but have spent October engaged in dry-land practices. STM has been involved with just three meets this season as well, with a fourth slated for Saturday in Mattoon against Charleston.

Deptula’s squad has taken advantage of those limited interactions with opposing teams. The biggest example is McClure, who recently committed to play volleyball at Ohio State, setting the Sabers’ 50-yard freestyle school record with a time of 26.48 seconds earlier this month versus Mahomet-Seymour.

“(The newcomers) have that volleyball competitiveness, but they don’t show it to each other. They show it within themselves,” Deptula said. “I’ve enjoyed coaching the girls who are from the other sports because they bring a different drive.”

Abby Deptula has stepped up to swim the daunting 500 freestyle, and Angie Deptula feels her daughter could clock a new personal best in the race at next Saturday’s sectional. The elder Deptula described her other returnee, Goebel, as “a chameleon” swimmer who can match up with anyone around her.

This likely is the only time Deptula will have this specific assortment of girls together, assuming volleyball returns to the fall in 2021. So she’s trying to make the most of the moment.

“The new set of girls has come in and brought a different level of excitement,” Deptula said. “The returning girls brought excitement that I’m used to.”

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