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Connetquot's 200-yard freestyle relay team hoping to make big splash

Members of the Connetquot 200-freestyle relay team pose

Members of the Connetquot 200-freestyle relay team pose for a photo before swim team practice on Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. From left: Katherine Green, Leah Russell, Michelle Wootton and Emma Kopp. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

From afar, the four girls look like sisters -- similar builds, similar heights, infectious smiles and long blonde hair that extends to the middle of their backs.

In the water, they look like champions, with whip-fast times that are the best among Long Island public schools this year.

But get a little closer and things get interesting. Sure, Connetquot has Katherine Green, a senior and six-year varsity swimmer, but then there's the rest of the cast: Emma Kopp, Michelle Wootton and Leah Russell, all freshmen, who have teamed to do what no other 200-yard freestyle relay unit has done yet this season, according to coach Alex Scichilone: qualify for the state championships during the dual meet season.

"It was one of the best feelings in the world," said Green, who anchors the relay. "Looking at [the other girls' times] together, I felt we could dominate, but not like this. I thought this was really impressive."

On Oct. 15 against Lindenhurst, Green swam her leg in 24.81 seconds as the relay clocked 1:41.31, a hair under the 1:41.69 qualifying mark. And Scichilone believes that time can go even lower because he said the team has not peaked yet.

The girls seem to be counting on that. With the league championship meet, the county meet and the state meet on the horizon, the team has established yet another daunting goal. "We want to break our school record," Kopp said. "We want our names to be on that board."

The board she's talking about, hanging on the wall opposite the starting blocks in the Connetquot High School pool, lists the school record in every swim event. The 200 free relay record is 1:36.57 (set in 2010 by Mikaila Gaffey, Sara Dieterich, Claudia Reyes and Nicole Hetzer), which means this year's relay needs to swim about five seconds faster.

It seems like a long shot because swimmers usually improve their times by mere fractions of a second from meet to meet. But Scichilone, who has coached the Thunderbirds for 19 years and also coaches a number of the varsity girls in the Connetquot Swim Club, seemed cautiously optimistic. The thing is, he said, he's seen this type of thing before.

"The girls who set that record, they were seeded fourth or fifth [in the state meet]," before they achieved that time, he said. "And that relay team reminds me of these four. They feed off each other and they push each other to the max . . . I think with the excitement [of the state meet] they could do it."

The relay team has been swimming together on varsity for two years, but has been together in the Connetquot Swim Club for about seven years. They swim year-round, Scichilone said, "and they've known each other for so long, that they're comfortable with each other."

They also excel on their own: Each of the four girls has nearly qualified for the state meet in individual events, and Scichilone said they all have the ability for state times.

In the coming meets, Green will be trying in the 100 butterfly and 100 free, Kopp and Wootton will try for the 50- and 100 free and Russell will attempt the 200 free and 100 breaststroke. The girls also hope to make the cut in the 400 free relay. For the freshmen, it'll be their first trip after just missing the 200 relay cutoff last year.

"We worked so much harder after last year," Russell said, "because we were so close."

Wootton echoed Russell, saying the close call motivated them. It doesn't hurt, she added, that the girls feed off each other's energy. "We just get each other so excited," she said. "We have so much fun."

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