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Ward Melville back in the swim with 21st straight county title

Suffolk County champions Ward Melville girls swim team

Suffolk County champions Ward Melville girls swim team members Colleen Lampe, Sarah Schoenfeld, Casandra Willie, Rachel Bertini, Sara Buckley, Kristen Pozmanter and Casey Gavigan, and coaches Chris Gordon and Britni Navetta pose for a photo at the Ward Melville High School pool. (Nov. 13, 2012) Credit: Daniel De Mato

School day after school day was being canceled at Ward Melville High School in the wake of superstorm Sandy, and though there were countless reasons for wanting things to go back to normal, there was one motivation particular to Sara Buckley and her swimming teammates.

One of Ward Melville's three team captains, the senior knew that canceled classes also meant no place to practice. For these girls -- who spend nearly every day in the pool -- the swift reversal had them feeling like fish out of water for four days.

No walk down the long flight of stairs leading to the school's subterranean level. No smack of thick humidity once you've opened the doors.

"I was getting really nervous," Buckley said. Swimming "is like every day. If you're out of the pool for three days . . . "

"It really affects you," her teammate, Colleen Lampe, continued. "I was getting really scared."

With that type of dedication, there's little wonder the Patriots have won 21 county championships in a row.

The girls, many of whom belong to the Three Village Swim Club, ended up improvising after two scheduled days off and two more days scrambling to find a place to swim. On the Wednesday after the storm, they found available pools, eventually settling on the Holtsville YMCA and the World Gym in Setauket until school reopened. A week and a half after that, they kept the tradition alive, handily clinching that 21st victory while taking first place in the 200-yard medley relay and the 400 freestyle relay.

Lampe, Buckley, Cassandra Willie, Rachael Bertini, Sarah Schoenfeld, Kristen Pozmanter and Casey Gavigan. These are the girls who will represent Ward Melville in the state championships Friday and Saturday in Ithaca.

Lampe, one of the biggest winners at counties, will swim in the 400 freestyle relay, the 100 backstroke and the 200 medley relay.

She, like Buckley, is a captain, and one of the many girls coach Chris Gordon says has been training for this since she was about old enough to attend school.

"From 5, 6, 7 years old, they're swimming year-round," said Gordon, who has headed the program for 19 years. "They're swimming five or six days a week, morning before school and some nights with their club [team]. That's how they get that good."

With achievement comes expectation, and the Patriots have loads of both. In recent years, the school has taken to updating the "Swimming Championship" poster with marker. It used to be a fully printed glossy poster noting every year Ward Melville won a title, but the years 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 have been neatly added on with marker, as if to say that the printers can't quite keep up with this cast of overachievers.

No wonder Lampe said it was "a sigh of relief," when they won counties. Gordon echoed the sentiment. Though he denied that the girls expect to win, he'll acknowledge that they don't expect to lose. There is a slight pressure there, and it's one they try to use to their advantage.

"I think there is some pressure of 21 years," he said. "They don't want to be the ones to end the streak . . . It's their tradition."

The squad is so steeped in tradition that the assistant coach, Britni Navetta, was a dominant swimmer for Ward Melville. Navetta was pivotal in building the program when she swam from 1998 to 2004.

Buckley called all the history "a good pressure," adding that "it gets us pumped." They have their eye on the county championship from the beginning of the season, she said, and, while this is her first year at the state tournament, she hopes to bring that competitive edge all those hundreds of miles up north.

"I'm very proud of myself," she said. "I'm so happy to go to states with the relay team, three girls that I love, and three girls I've grown up with."

For the senior, it will be the culmination of a life spent in the water, making waves and quietly -- but determinately -- upholding a dynasty.

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