Last year, there was one story at the NPC women's swimming championships: a clash between conference titans South Rowan and East Rowan. This year, there were three stories: a new women's swimming power trying to defend its conference crown, the perennial goliath looking to regain the throne, and a group of scrappy insurgents from Carson High School seeking to make a mark of their own.
At the end of the meet, the two teams from China Grove left with bragging rights. The Raiders left little doubt as to who the queens of the water were. They led from the start. Junior Faith Casswell started off the 200 medley relay, opening up a body length lead over the field before handing the metaphorical baton to Sydney Kelly, South's only senior. Kelly maintained the advantage. When defending NPC swimmer of the year Nicole Mauldin dove in for the butterfly leg of the relay, there was no going back. Mauldin and sophomore Taylor Kluttz closed out the relay in dominating fashion, more than 3 seconds ahead of the Mustangs.
Hailey Bartleson got East Rowan under control with a solid win in the 200 freestyle, but South's Kluttz and freshman Madyson Campbell claimed the silver and bronze. South returned to the top of the podium in the next event, as Mauldin blew away the field to win the 200 IM by nearly 13 seconds over West Iredell's Lynsey Clippard, smashing her own school record in the process. Unsung hero Casey Pruitt joined in the fun, charging through the final lap of the race to claim third. After that 1-3 finish, South never looked back.
Leslie Franks got a little revenge over rival Megan Barbetto of East Rowan. Barbetto nipped Franks in the 50 free just three weeks ago. This time it was Franks who touched first in a school record time of 26.11. Statesville's Hannah Gay finished third, but South's Kelly picked up fourth for the Raiders. Mauldin rolled in the 100 butterfly with another school record, with East Rowan's Brooke Waller in second. Campbell lopped four seconds off her entry time to finish fifth, just behind Statesville Ellesse Stevens and Carson's Erin Marohn.
Then came the Raiders' most dominating event of the day. Casswell claimed the gold in the 100 freestyle, a fingertip in front of teammate Taylor Kluttz. Carson's Jana Bradshaw finished third, but Raider sophomore Samantha Kennerly finished fourth.
After searching all season for a leader in the 500 freestyle, the Raiders found one at exactly the right time. Strong and steady, Casey Pruitt continued to impress, dropping 13 seconds in the event to claim second behind Statesville's Ameila Zweiner. East's Kristen Carriker touched third, but first year swimmers Maren Lewallen and Kylie Labbe cruised in for the Raiders at fourth and fifth.
The 200 freestyle relay proved to be a good one for South as well. Mauldin led off, establishing a slim lead over East Rowan. But it was Sydney Kelly who made the difference, slicing a second and a half from her 50 freestyle time and delivering an iron-clad lead to Kluttz and Franks, who closed out the relay. The foursome shattered both the South Rowan school record and the 1:50.00 barrier, going a 1:49.40.
Casswell and Franks hammered the final nails in the coffin with wins in the 100 backstroke and 100 breaststroke, respectively. Franks made it two for two with a second individual school record. East's Meredith Brown was the top Mustang in the 100 back with a 10th place finish. Melissa Fischer led the Mustangs in the 100 breast, finishing fourth.
With Mauldin and Kluttz event limited, the last relay of the day looked to be another close race between South and East. Casswell led off for the Raiders, slowly building a body length lead over East's Hailey Bartleson. On the second leg of the relay, it was the battle of the freshmen, with Mustang wunderkind Brooke Waller slowly reeling in South's Madyson Campbell. But again it was Casey Pruitt who stepped up in a crunch. Pruitt kept the relay within reach against a very talented Anna Leigh Shuping, setting up another barn burner between sprint rivals Franks and Barbetto. Barbetto entered the water just ahead, but again it was Franks who came from behind to steal the win, making it a Raider relay sweep.
Andy Houck's Cougars made it a meet to remember. It was no secret coming into the meet that his girls were the most improved in the conference. But even the true believers might not have thought beating behemoth East Rowan was possible. How they did it was even more impressive. There was no single hero for Carson. In fact, the Cougars went home without a single all-conference performer. But every girl stepped up. Senior Erin Marohn and freshman Ashlee Wagoner formed a dynamic duo in both the 200 IM, finishing 5th and 7th. They teamed up again for a 4-6 finish in the 100 butterfly. Brooke Myall and Anna Brown handled the mid-distance events for the Cougars. Dakota Boardman had a fantastic race to lead Carson in the 50 free, taking 5th with a 30.42. Backstroke star Jana Bradshaw had to sit out the early season due to injury, but she showed no signs of hurting on Thursday. Bradshaw was Carson's top performer of the day, claiming two bronze medals in the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke. Senior Taylor Barringer secured the Lady Cougar's highest ever finish at the conference meet with a bronze in the 100 breaststroke.
West Rowan's top performer was Tyler Myers, who finished 9th in the 50 freestyle. The Falcons finished seventh.
South Rowan's Nicole Mauldin was named Conference Swimmer of the Year for the second straight season. East Rowan's Jon Heidrick was named Coach of the Year.