Through the past 25 years, the Branford girls' swim team developed into one of the state's premier programs by winning nine state titles. Yet despite getting close to the Class M crown the last two seasons, the Hornets came up just shy of replicating their predecessors' success.
That all changed at Wesleyan University on Nov. 13, when the 2012 edition of Branford girls' swimming cemented itself as an all-time elite Hornets' squad by not only capturing the Class M state championship, but doing so in dominating fashion, scoring 173 more points than runner-up Brookfield to take home title No. 10 and its first since 2006.
Scott Butler's squad had placed second behind Wilton at each of the last two Class M meets. With Wilton now in Class L, the door was open for the Hornets to make history and that's precisely what they did, using two first-place finishes and plenty of depth to ascend to the top of their class with 694 points.
"It's incredible. I still can't even grasp what just happened," said senior captain Abby Raynor. "After all the hard work we did every day that set the foundation for tonight and then to see the excitement on every girl's face tonight was unbelievable. To continue the tradition of Branford swimming means the world."
Raynor captains Branford with fellow seniors Chrissy Beaulac and Chrissy Rasile, who both swam on the victorious 200-yard medley relay with freshman Paige MacNeil and junior Lauren Rasile, posting a time of 1:51.11 to top E.O. Smith by three-and-a-half seconds. The Hornets' other first-place performance was delivered by senior Lily Suhanovsky, who swam 1:09.15 in the 100 breaststroke to defeat Berlin freshman Olivia DeGroff by just over one second.
As pivotal as these performances were, depth proved the deciding factor in Branford besting its 20 Class M opponents as it qualified at least three girls in all eight individual swimming events, several of which scored major points by competing in the top heat.
"To compare this team to any of the others I've coached, depth really was the difference. Our third and fourth swimmers were, by far, faster than any we've had at a state meet," said Coach Butler, who's in his sixth campaign as Hornets' coach. "From day one, our only goal was to win the state title and all the training we did focused on that. We received great leadership from our 10 seniors and saw 12 freshmen give us the depth we needed to win."
The Hornets set a triumphant tone from the outset by winning the meet's first event in the 200 medley relay, marking the second-straight year they did so. Branford featured three of the same four athletes from last year's medley relay with the one newcomer MacNeil competing in the butterfly leg. Chrissy Rasile swam the breaststroke leg and felt confident that her quartet's victory could pave the path to the championship.
Rasile couldn't quite defend her title in the 50 freestyle-placing second at 23.96 to E.O. Smith's Siobhan Dale, who broke Rasile's Class M record from last year with a 23.63-but, not surprisingly, she wasn't too upset considering what she and her team achieved.
"With Wilton out of the way, we knew we had our best chance in a while, but we also practiced harder than ever. We started out tonight strong, pulled ahead with each event, and seeing our score go up throughout the night gave us that extra push," said Rasile. "It's an honor to bring home the title, especially in my senior year, and I know the girls have the potential to do it next year, too."
Rasile additionally placed fourth in the 100 freestyle (52.44) and swam on the second-place 200 freestyle relay (1:41.46) with her sister Lauren, freshman Erika Maercklein, and Raynor, two of the numerous top-heat showings turned in by the Hornets. Others who finished in the top eight were senior Calla Cameron in the 500 freestyle (2nd, 5:14.61) and 200 freestyle (4th, 1:59.09); Raynor in the 500 free (5th, 5:24.96) and 200 free (5th, 2:00.08); Lauren Rasile in the 50 freestyle (7th, 24.88) and 100 freestyle (7th, 54.75); MacNeil in the 100 butterfly (8th, 1:01.83); Beaulac in the 100 backstroke (4th, 1:01.92); and Maercklein in the 100 breaststroke (4th, 1:10.90); along with the 400 freestyle relay of Cameron, Beaulac, MacNeil, and Raynor, which finished fourth at 3:45.76.
Then there was the performance put forth by Suhanovsky, who complemented her victory in the 100 breaststroke by placing fifth in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:19.32. Suhanovsky had taken third in the breaststroke at the 2011 Class M Championship and, with last year's top two placers having graduated, the event was hers for the taking.
"I couldn't see the other people swimming behind me, but I knew they were close so I just swam as fast as I could to the end," said Suhanovsky. "All of our hard work and extra hours of practice were worth it and everyone on the team was ready to swim tonight."
Everyone unquestionably contributed to Branford's victory as all finishers score points in a state swim meet and the Hornets boasted more of those than any opponent. Also scoring points that guided Branford to the title were junior Samantha Bailey-Loomis in the 500 freestyle (9th, 5:31.44) and 200 freestyle (10th, 2:01.99); junior Eden Wooster in the 500 free (19th, 5:44.04) and 200 free (20th, 2:07.33); MacNeil (13th, 2:24.21) and Maercklein (17th, 2:22.17) in the 200 IM; freshman Caitlin Daley in the 50 freestyle (15th, 26.77); Beaulac (13th, 1:04.53), junior Paige Cacace (14th, 1:05.38), and senior Brya Excovar (17th, 1:06.45) in the 100 butterfly; sophomore Julia Dietz in the 100 backstroke (9th, 1:03.10) and 100 freestyle (15th, 58.01); junior Miriah Ventre in the 100 back (11th, 1:04.47) and 100 free (18th, 57.99); and senior Molly Soufrine in the 100 breaststroke (14th, 1:15.70). Additionally, at the Diving Championship in Plainville four days prior, Jessica Beler placed ninth with 275.09 points and fellow junior Aaryne Antell was 20th at 226.75.
It was performances like these which ensured the year 2012 will always reside on a banner commemorating Branford's state title at its home pool of Walsh Intermediate School, hanging alongside those from 1988, '90, '98, '00, '01, '02, '03, '04, and '06.
Like many of her teammates, Beaulac grew up knowing all about the program's storied history and was elated that this particular Hornets' team will forever be remembered.
"Right now, everyone is laughing and singing," said Beaulac. "I grew up with these girls and so to experience something like this with them is just amazing."