When sophomore Bailey Bickerstaff asked her fellow swimmers to bow their heads Wednesday, she ushered her teammates into a moment of calm reflection just before the Chargers began to compete at the G-MAC-Mount East Swimming & Diving Championships for the first time ever.
Bickerstaff ended her prayer and the Chargers jumped into a four-day meet at the C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton, Ohio, where they fought hard for a 1,323-point, second-place finish.
“The meet was charged. Our team was excited — we were ready to go,” Bickerstaff said. “It was also very purpose-driven meet.”
Bickerstaff said head coach Kurt Kirner and assistant coach Zoe Hopkins had prepared their swimmers to greet pre-swim nerves with mindfulness, a composure cultivated for the team as she prayed over them before the meet. This poise carried the swimmers through the meet as the Chargers faced nine other teams, dominating all but the University of Findlay, which won first place with 1,973 points. Malone University finished well behind Hillsdale in third place with 953.5 points.
“The meet was more competitive than I had anticipated, as the G-MAC has some quality athletes,” Kirner said. “Mountain East provided some awesome competition, especially Fairmont State University and West Virginia Wesleyan College.”
Junior Anika Ellingson started the meet out strong on Wednesday with a lifetime best in the 200 IM for fourth place at 2:08.91. Heeres touched the wall soon after, earning a sixth-place spot on the podium with a season-best 2:10.92. Sophomore Lizzie Leathers placed eighteenth at 2:23.77, a lifetime best time for her.
Later that evening, Ellingson, sophomore Allie Matti, sophomore Catherine Voisin, and freshman Emma Rao took a second-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
Thursday, three Chargers shone in the 400 IM. Freshman Hannah Wilkens carved her way to fifth place in 4:44.37. Ellingson snagged seventh place with a lifetime-best time of 4:46.5. Senior Theresa Smith powered into fourteenth place in 4:57.86, a season best.
The 100 butterfly brought Hillsdale glory seven times over. Voisin took fifth in 58.30. Bickerstaff, junior Tiffany Farris, and senior Peyton Bowen boxed out ninth, 10th, and 11th places in 59.20, 1:00.21, and 1:00.42, respectively. Bickerstaff and Farris’ times were lifetime bests, while Bowen’s was season-best. Leathers came in fourteenth at 1:02.52, Rao in twenty-first at 1:04.62, and sophomore Taylor Steyer at 1:04.91.
Heeres won bronze in the 200 freestyle with a lifetime-best time of 1:54.09, edging within a second of the school record.
“Coach and I were on the line about whether I was going to swim the 200 freestyle on the second day of the meet. I hate the 200 free because I’ve never known how to swim it, but I had done it at almost every meet this year and I felt good about it,” Heeres said. “I was pretty close to the school record on that one too, which was totally surprising. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
Hillsdale relayers repeated their second-place finish when Matti, Ellingson, Voisin, and Heeres swam the 400 medley relay in 3:54.99.
Ellingson swiped the silver medal in the 100 breaststroke on Friday with a 1:02.97, a time which will most likely qualify her to proceed to the national competition in March.
“That race sets me up in a really good spot for nationals,” Ellingson said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t win, but I knew it was going to be tough competition.”
Sophomore Victoria Addis, Rao, and Smith followed Ellingson into seventh, 19th, and 21st places in the 100 breaststroke with respective times of 1:08.38, 1:13.42, and 1:16.06. Rao earned a lifetime-best time while Smith swam a season-best.
Heeres scored another third-place when she swam the 100 backstroke in 58.40. Matti took the podium with a seventh-place, 1:00.13 swim. Bickerstaff was just behind in eleventh with 1:01.99, followed by freshman Mary Vita in 14th with a season-best 1:02.67. Rao and Smith took 19th and 21st place, Rao with a season-best 1:13.42 and Smith with a season-best 1:16.06.
Before Heeres, Wilkens, junior Grace Houghton, and sophomore Danielle LeBleu finished Friday with a 7:49.56, third-place victory in the 800 freestyle relay, the Chargers flooded the winner’s podium on the 200 butterfly. Houghton won second place with a season-best time of 2:08.09. Voisin came next in fourth, just five seconds after Houghton at 2:13.03. Bowen was fifth with a season-best 2:14.31. Leathers followed with a lifetime-best time at 2:16.64 with Bickerstaff touching the wall just after at 2:16.87.
“That race was a really good experience for me because I thought less about myself during the swim and more about going out and swimming for the team. It was a really good experience of camaraderie,” Houghton said. “It was fun to see blue everywhere.”
On Saturday, Heeres broke the school record for the 200 backstroke, swimming a lifetime-best at 2:04.74 for the silver medal. Matti took sixth at 2:09.47. Both Bickerstaff and Farris pulled lifetime-best times in their respective finals, with times of 2:13.07 and 2:12.83, respectively. Smith closed her college swimming career in twentieth place with a season-best of 2:21.15.
Ellingson earned another chance at nationals when she out-touched the competition for third place in the 200 breaststroke for a season-best 2:19.64.
“Both Anika Ellingson and Katherine Heeres are driven swimmers both in practice and at meets. They have a mindset that allows them to focus on what it takes to be at their very best. Many competitors still come up and say ‘I’m nervous’ or ‘I’m not feeling quite right,’” Kirner said. “You will never hear that from either Anika or Katherine. They trust their abilities and training.”
Addis, Bowen, and Voisin followed Ellingson into ninth, 15th, and 18th. Addis achieved a lifetime-best time at 2:30.12 while Bowen and Voisin had season-bests at 2:35.94 and 2:41.04.
Houghton raced into second place for the mile swim at 18:05.83 with sophomore Lizzie Leathers following up in 14th place at 19:54.86 and Smith in 19th at 20:21.61.
“I have a different way of training for distance. I don’t train mechanically. I know when I’m getting tired and I need to increase my effort to compensate,” Houghton said. “I don’t know what pace I’m going like other swimmers do, but I know what I need to feel in my body to sustain myself. It’s in the core.”
Kirner said that Houghton was better prepared for the competition the G-MAC-ME conference offered her, as opposed to what she swam against at the GLIAC championships.
“Houghton’s time of 18:05 in the mile places her at sixth on our all-time list,” Kirner said. “She isn’t done yet. I believe she can cut more time moving into her senior year.”