Kapaun shows emotions behind runner-up finish at state meet
Katherine Baldessari nearly collapsed as she started to cry.
Kapaun believed all it needed to do was win the final event of the Class 5-1A state meet to win the school's first girls swimming and diving state championship. The Crusaders touched the wall first and set a school record in the process, but there was a problem.
Kapaun came into the 400-yard freestyle relay trailing only Aquinas. The Saints had to finish no better than fifth for the Crusaders to clinch the title.
Aquinas finished fourth in the race and first in the meet.
Although that stung Kapaun, Baldessari said the journey with her team has been unforgettable.
"We're sisters," she said. "People don't understand that we all go through the same things. It's not like any other sport. So we understand each other in a different way.
"It takes 30 minutes to an hour to get these suits on, in some cases an hour and a half. You understand these girls so much more than just another girl on the team. They are family."
The Kapaun swimmers did their part despite outrageous pressure. The relay team of senior Baldessari, junior Elizabeth Mitsch, sophomore Natalie Knapp and freshman anchor Claire Conover were shaking with nervousness before the race.
As winners from the previous event were announced, they hugged and prayed and jumped and slapped their legs to get the anxiety out. Still, even a freshman came through. To Mitsch, that spoke volumes about Conover.
"I thought I was going to have to throw up," Conover said. "But these girls are just amazing. They can get my focus back so quick. If I didn't have them, I probably wouldn't have done that."
The Crusaders came short despite winning the race, but Erickson's message was clear after Aquinas was announced the champion.
The future is bright and getting brighter by the day, and the group of seniors pour their hearts into this team.
Kapaun was on an emotional ride from before the start of the 400 freestyle relay to standing atop the podium holding the runner-up trophy. But the Crusaders held that trophy proudly.
Baldessari even raised it. They had made history, even in defeat.
"We wanted to do our part, and whatever happens, happens," coach Chris Erickson said. "We train ourselves. We don't train them. I'm not let down at all. Second place is a big thing."
Last year, Kapaun finished seventh at the state meet. Even the Aquinas swimmers said they didn't know the Crusaders were going to be a real threat until they read an article from the Eagle.
Kapaun won two events Saturday, which was pleasantly out of character. All season, the Crusaders relied on their depth to carry them to success.
Earlier this season, Kapaun beat defending Class 6A champion East by winning only one race. But Knapp changed that attribute.
The sophomore came into the state meet after a bumpy season. In and out of the lineup, Knapp finally found form coming in and had the top preliminary run in the 200-yard individual medley.
As the final started, Knapp fell behind - so far that she believed she was out of contention after two legs.
"I had no clue where I was placed coming into the freestyle," Knapp said. "I thought, 'This could be my last 200 IM. I'm not going to give up. I don't care how bad it hurts.' And I just went for it. I don't even remember it."
Knapp unbelievably closed the gap and won the medley with a 2:15.11, almost a second better than her top prelim time. It got even better when she looked to her right.
Mitsch was racing in the 200-yard IM for one of her first times. When she found out she was going to run it at state, she wasn't happy.
But she finished second, only to her teammate.
It was that kind of meet for Kapaun. They laughed more than they cried. They looked up more than they looked down. And they said they wouldn't have rather done it with any other group of girls.
"Other people at school have noticed how fun it is to be on the swim team," Mitsch said.
That group won't be the same next year. Baldessari was the heart of the Crusaders, and everyone seemed to be OK with that.
She won't be back, and though she wasn't the Crusaders' top swimmer, her loss will be felt. But Kapaun will be back. Some of the top swimmers in Class 5-1A will wear the white Kapaun cap with the momentum of the best season in Crusader history behind them.
"This is the start of something Wichita has never seen before," Baldessari said.