After an 11th place finish at the state meet last year, the Lakers returned all but two of their qualifiers for the 2016 season, and added a few more. A punishing dual meet season and tremendous success at the conference championship amounts to very little for a resilient Lakers squad, just fuel for a high-octane final weekend.
Led by the historically talented Meghan Peel and Jennifer Meulenbelt, the Lakers will send nine swimmers and one diver to this year’s MHSAA Division 3 state meet. From medal finishes to just making it back to finals, Spring Lake swimming will have girls all over the meet.
“We were shooting for top-10 last year and tied for 11th, so basically as close as you could get,” said Spring Lake head coach Ellen Weisse. “We will shoot for top 10 again this year.”
A grueling conference season put the Lakers through the ringer between August and November.
“Forest Hills was the only conference team we beat in the dual season,” coach Weisse said of the regular season. “We thought we could beat Northview in the dual, but we didn’t.
“In some ways our conference is a lot harder than state,” Weisse said. “There were girls who were setting conference records, which also would be division 3 state records. It was great competition.”
Competing in a tough conference does take its toll over the course of a season; the motivation of fierce competition isn’t always such a rosy filter.
“We had a worse dual meet record than we ended up doing at conference, we felt the season was worth it in the end, but the season was hard,” Weisse said.
After winning just one conference dual meet, the Lakers finished sixth out of eight teams at the O-K Blue meet, but their place was far lower than their performance indicated.
Five Spring Lake school records fell over the course of the two-day meet, including the 200 medley relay record. The team of Peel, Meulenbelt, Annie Brechting and Sarah Mumby stroked their way to a third-place finish and a resetting of their own school record from the 2015 state meet.
The Lakers also qualified a diver for state meet. Audra Bialik will represent Spring Lake on the boards for a second straight year this weekend, after a stellar performance at the Division 3 regional. Bialik qualified as a sophomore in 2015, the first Laker diver to reach the big dance in recent memory.
“It was really tough going into the conference meet. I liked watching all the girls in the top five, all the dives were really pretty, you just have to do the best you can every time,” Bialik said of her qualifying run. “Regionals, it was a lot nicer knowing that there wasn’t going to be as much competition.”
Like all their successes this year so far, everything is building for the state meet.
“I wish that some of my (diving) teammates were coming with me, I’m excited to see what girls do at state,” Bialik added.
“We went into (state meet) last year ranked third in the medley relay but we didn’t have a best time,” Peel said of the medley performance. “Our conference time this year smashed our school record, faster than state last year already. If we get that time down then we have a lot better chance of placing top three.”
The 200-medley relay team has been together for two solid seasons now, with pieces of it reaching back four years.
Spring Lake senior Jennifer Meulenbelt swings a text-book relay exchange off Meghan Peel in the 200-yard medley relay against Grand Rapids Christian. (Tribune file photo/ Duncan MacLean)
“Some people started calling us the dream team,” Meulenbelt said of the fearsome foursome.
Peel and Meulenbelt have earned spots on the 200 medley for four years straight now. Both have captured top-eight individual finishes at the Division 3 state meet, All-State awards and even school records. Now, their only concern is continuing to improve and making sure they leave something constructive behind for the younger girls.
“I want to leave something with Mumby so that when she comes next year she has a piece of advice from us that she can give to the new medley relay,” Peel said. “I’m getting goosebumps already. It is going to be sad, bittersweet. I’m excited to go a good time for our relay but it’s our last relay together and it’s sad because we love each other so much.”
For Meulenbelt, the whole ordeal is still a bit surreal.
“I knew we were all good in our strokes but it is exciting and fun because we don’t get many chances for our relays, we may have good individual swims but sometimes we aren’t all on the same page.”
With just two full days before the start of the meet (Friday morning) the final days of practice are about finding that page.
“We have a couple girls who should definitely get top eight, even top five in their events,” coach Weisse said. “Then we have other girls who were closer to just making the state cuts, it would be awesome if we could just get them back to finals.”
“We have to bring it to finals,” Peel said. “We didn’t do that last year. Do the little things, keep calm, if you get too excited too early it takes away a little energy.”
For Peel, the message to her team for their final contest of the year is simple.
“Just leave it all in the pool,” she said. “Pain is only temporary, it is so much more rewarding to swim the whole race in pain then look at the clock and feel that adrenaline.”
The Lakers will put the kids to bed and go hunting for pain beginning with prelim swims Friday at 1:00 p.m. at the Holland Aquatic Center.