Brittany Coughlin hovers by her spot while the previous race is still going on, slapping her thighs and bouncing on the balls of her feet. When it's time to clamber up to the starting block, her teammates and opponents look frozen in their four-point stance. But she claps her hands, turns her head to the starter, and waits for the call.
She is all energy and anxiety and intensity and that almost, just almost, earned her a long-sought spot on the state team in the 100-yard breaststroke.
"My mind has been set on it all week," the Ward Melville junior said yesterday after an 87-85 win over Commack / Northport. "I've tried making it for two years and for two years, I've missed it by a tenth. It kills me every time . . . But I'm proud of myself, knowing I can make the time [I did] and not even be tapered, I know my time can be even better."
Coughlin, who won in 1:08.97, just .37 shy of the time she needed, will have another two chances to make the state team, in the league and county championships. But for now, she epitomizes the nature of a Ward Melville girls swim team that hopes to win its 23rd straight county title this year: They are their own biggest competition and their own biggest source of pressure.
"It's an extreme amount of pressure," said Sarah Schoenfeld, who's made the state meet before but still needs to make her qualifying time this season (she finished second with a 1:11.03 in the breaststroke). "It's a lot, but it's nice to go in with that record on our backs."
Wednesday, Ward Melville clinched an undefeated League I season, going 6-0. Though the final score was tight, those numbers often have done little to reflect the Patriots' domination this season, as coach Chris Gordon sometimes opts to not compete with his stronger swimmers when a dual-meet victory is in hand. Standouts Wednesday included Jessica Vairo, who won the 50 freestyle in 26.97 and Cassandra Willie, who won the 100 butterfly in 1:00.53 -- less than a second shy of a state-qualifying time.
"Coming on the team with 20-plus years of winning, there is an immense amount of pressure to keep the tradition going and it's crazy," said Casey Gavigan, who already has qualified for the state tournament in the 100 backstroke.
It's a feeling Coughlin knows too well. She said she'll be working on her stroke and fixing "just the little things." Schoenfeld, too, would like nothing more than to go upstate her senior year.
"I've done it in past years, and that's a good sign," she said.
And then, she added the most important part: "I tend to swim well under pressure."