Aquinas avenges last year's runner-up finish with state championship
All they could do was scream.
Aquinas won the Class 5-1A state swim title after finishing fourth on the final race of the day, the 400-yard individual relay. The Saints edged Wichita's Kapaun Mt. Carmel by four points to win the team title.
"It's definitely a team effort," junior Jesse Paxton said. "You think of swimming as an individual sport, but every single person matters, and every single point really matters."
Aquinas won three events. The Saints started strong with a victory in the second event, the 200-yard medley relay. They set the tone over Kapaun, beating the Crusaders by close to two seconds and bettered their preliminary time.
It also set the tone for standouts junior Jesse Paxton and freshman Aubrey Hesser.
Two events later, Hesser finished third in a loaded 50-yard freestyle field. She finished two hundreths of a second behind Maize's Brooklyn Blasdel.
Later, Paxton and Hesser paired with juniors Maddie Kopp and Allie Micklavzina to win the 200-yard freestyle relay. They beat Wichita's Bishop Carroll by more than a second, which served as valuable momentum for later in the meet.
Aquinas trained a bit differently this season. The Saints focused on sprints and employed a system of relay training that paid off, earning 80 points in the meet's first two relays.
"We didn't have anybody in the 200; we didn't have anybody in the 500," coach Jennifer Caldwell said. "Really, we were just holding tight to our relays."
Then came Paxton's moment.
One event before the finale, Paxton took the blocks in the 100-yard breaststroke. She entered with the second-fastest preliminary time, behind only the girl to her right, Carroll's Lexie Shelton, who had already won a state title in the 500-yard freestyle.
Paxton touched the wall less than a quarter second before Shelton. That feeling didn't compare with the team title.
"I am just ecstatic," Paxton said. "I don't know if I've ever been this happy. We really didn't know if we were going to be able to win."
Aquinas had a handful of meet-changing moments.
In diving, the Saints' trio of sophomore Hailey Brewer, senior Ava Selzer, senior Hannah Brewer and Natalie Bien finished No. 3, 4, 5 and 8, which made a major difference over Kapaun, which finished No. 11 and 14 in diving.
Joining Hesser in the 50-yard freestyle, Kopp and Micklavzina placed after two of the top eight preliminary times.
And in the 100-yard butterfly, Paxton and Kopp finished No. 1 and 2 in the consolation heat despite qualifying No. 3 and 4 in the prelims.
"My heart is beating out of my chest," Caldwell said. "This is just absolutely ridiculous. We didn't even know where we were coming into this."
Aquinas finished runner-up in 2017 to Miege. The Saints were considered one of the favorites coming into this season.
Kapaun was not, finishing seventh at the state meet last year.
Caldwell said her team had no idea about the Crusaders' top quality until they read an article from the Wichita Eagle that mentioned how they had beaten defending Class 6A champion, Wichita East, in an invitational.
"Kapaun hasn't been on the radar much," she said. "But now they have this young, strong team full of club swimmers. And that is one of the craziest parts: We only have two, maybe 2 1/2 club swimmers."
The meet came down to the 0.63 seconds, the difference between Aquinas' fourth-place finish in the final event and a runner-up finish in the team competition.
Caldwell said that final race was an indication of one thing:
"This team has heart," she said.