MORRISTOWN _ Athletes get through tense situations in a multitude of ways.
Prior to the 400-meter freestyle relay, the last event for the girls at the Morris County Swimming Championships, Chatham sophomore Hailey Harkins danced behind the blocks to calm her nerves.
"Hailey's got nice dance moves," said Olivia Polemeni, who swam the last leg of the relay.
Not long after, the entire Cougars contingent was dancing - and jumping - with joy after claiming their 10th consecutive title on Saturday, Jan. 27 at Morristown High School. Chatham amassed 273.5 points and second-place Morristown had 246. Mountain Lakes was third with 154.
"This is really special to me," said senior Nicole Tingley, one of the Cougars' five captains. "I already had three county wins under my belt. Thanks to these girls, the seniors have another."
Chatham coach Frank DiGiacomo not only went with a different order for the 400-meter freestyle relay, he added in Harkins, who does not consider herself a sprint freestyler.
Polemeni formerly swam the first leg of the race. Isabella Hoie was second followed by any number of swimmers. Tingley had been the anchor. However, for the MCT, DiGiacomo went with Harkins, Hoie, Tingley and Polemeni and the quartet produced the Cougars' only first-place showing of the meet with a time of 4:00.36.
"It made me look like I know what I'm doing or something," DiGiacomo said. "I had to think a little differently for this one. Normally, the second fastest and the fastest are at the end of the relay. I felt Hailey could do something crazy. Hailey does the IM, freestyle. She's a utility swimmer who excels in the 200 and on. We tested her all season and tried her in different things. She's really great so I put her in there."
Harkins, naturally, was anxious about leading off the relay.
"I'm usually in the 'B' race or I'm not in it," Harkins said. "I knew about it all day. I didn't understand the intensity of the meet. I was scared. Our coach and Olivia kept giving me pep talks."
The objective for Harkins was to stay with Morristown's Annalise Webber, certainly not an easy task.
"I tried to sprint the whole way and hang in there," Harkins said. "I wanted to stay in the realm of the Morristown swimmer. She knows how to go fast."
Hoie, a freshman making her MCT debut, did her part. She was a bit on edge, too, and fatigued from competing in other events.
"I have this face," Hoie said of her innocent look. "People see it and tell me not to be nervous. I really wasn't. Maybe I was a little. I knew we could pull this out. I couldn't the team down. I was tired but I had to do it. Everyone was tired."
Tingley, second in the butterfly and 200IM, knew the meet was close and texted her mother, Nancy, seated in the balcony, for scores before the closing relay.
"I asked what we needed to do to win," Tingley said. " She texted back 'It's counties.You need to win it.'"
Tingley initially thought DiGiacomo's plan for the relay was "iffy." She trusted her coach, though, and gave the Cougars a two-body-length lead going into the last leg.
Polemeni thought a bad habit of flipping too quickly on turns might make her a less-than-ideal No. 4 swimmer. Turns were not an issue and the sophomore swam a smooth race.
"Nicole's lead helped a lot," Polemeni said. "She kept asking me how I was beforehand. I think she did that to calm me."
DiGiacomo noted that his teams have thrived under pressure.
"When there's a situation where our backs are against the wall, we work our hardest," he said.
Morristown, led by Grace Miller, took first in two relays and had two other first-place showings. Miller was tops in the 200 and 400 freestyle. Laurel Carey of Madison garnered gold in the 50 and 100 freestyle. Montville's Victoria Eisenhauer was a double winner, setting MCT records in the breaststroke and 200IM.
Autumn Brook-Tucker of Roxbury prevailed in the 100 butterfly and Katie Kiely of Mountain Lakes took the backstroke.
Stretching the championship run to 10, said DiGiacomo, is "a testament to our community." The Cougars captured the first three titles under Dave Steele and one under the guidance of Karen Gaba. DiGiacomo has been at the helm for six.
"It's the swimmers and their parents. It's the support we get from everyone," DiGiacomo said. "It's not what I've done. Chatham loves swimming and its swimmers. We've had a very long line of kids who were effective. I had no idea what would happen coming in here. As it turned out, our depth got us the championship."
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