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Lady Explorers swimmers win fifth straight district title

By FRANK ACETO Associate Sports Editor Published: February 22, 2017 12:08 AM
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When Matt Davis took over the Hudson girls swimming and diving team, he had visions of turning the Lady Explorers into a perennial Northeast district powerhouse.

Fast forward to 11 years later and Hudson is still ruling Northeast Ohio with an iron fist.

The Lady Explorers captured their fifth consecutive Cleveland Division I district championship and sixth title in the last seven years after a first-place finish Feb. 18 at Cleveland State University's Busbey Natatorium.

Hudson won the 30-team meet with 344.5 points. North Canton Hoover took second with 305 points and Walsh Jesuit captured third with 279 points. The Lady Explorers had six swimmers qualify to the state meet in eight individual events and all three relays qualified.

Such dominance wasn't the case when Matt Davis became the Lady Explorers head coach 11 years ago. Nowadays, Davis and his team are living the high life and he doesn't want that grandiose lifestyle to go away any time soon.

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"We wanted to have a chance to win a district title," Davis said. "We set the standard and we wanted to keep winning. Our seniors who are graduating have won all four years.

"That's what we tell the kids. We don't want this to stop with you. We want the next group to hold on to that legacy and keep us at the top. It's a testament to the coaches and the kids that we can still perform at a high level."

It wasn't easy.

Hudson needed to keep swimming fast if it wanted to successfully complete its drive for five.

Fortunately for the Lady Explorers, they excelled in their strongest events.

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They took the top three places in both the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events and they were their usual formidable selves in the relay races.

"It was pretty close," Davis said. "When we went one, two, three in the 200 and 500 free, that gave us a significant lead. And then we took second in the 200 free relay. That put us in a good position to win if we finished strong."

Senior Natalie Gundling won the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:51.06 seconds. She broke Paige Kelly's 2013 school record of 1:51.23.

Sophomore Maddie Hannan (1:51.38) and senior Gaby Palazzo (1:54.44) finished second and third, respectively.

Freshman Paige McCormick led the way in the 500 freestyle. McCormick won by more than seven seconds with a personal-best time of 4:53.69. She broke Kelly's 2013 school record of 4:54.4.

Gundling took second (5:01.07) and Maggie Haas placed third (5:10.07).

Gundling advanced to the state competition in both the 200 and 500 freestyle races and McCormick qualified in the 500 freestyle and in the 200 individual medley after placing third (2:05.31) in that event. Hannan advanced in the 200 freestyle. The state competition is scheduled to take place this week at Canton McKinley High School's C.T. Branin Natatorium.

The preliminaries are set for Feb. 24 at 9 a.m. and the finals are scheduled for Feb. 25 at 5 p.m.

Gundling, who recently signed to continue her academic and swimming careers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is a three-time state qualifier.

"Natalie broke [2014 graduate] Paige Kelly's record in the 200 freestyle," Davis said. "She finished ninth in the 500 free last year. Her goal is to make top eight in both events."

Hannan also qualified in the 100 freestyle with a fourth-place time of 24.03 seconds. She reached the state competition as a member of the 200 freestyle relay team last season.

"Maddie made one of the biggest jumps from one season to the next," Davis said. "She was one of our better swimmers last year, but she has made huge strides this year. We knew she had a shot of making it in both of her individual events."

McCormick will be the No. 2 seed in the 500 freestyle at the state meet.

"My expectations for her are to swim faster this week," Davis said. "She is probably our best shot to finish the highest at the state meet. Our goal is for her to be on the podium in both events."

Hannan, McCormick, Palazzo and senior Macy Trattner won the 400 freestyle relay with a district-record time of 3:28.83. That clocking broke the district record of 3:29.51 set by Hudson in 2015.

Trattner, senior Brittan Ham, Gundling and Palazzo led the 200 freestyle relay to second place (1:35.65) and Ham, McCormick, Palazzo and Hannan guided the 200 medley relay to a runner-up finish (1:45.57). The medley relay team broke the 2015 school record of 1:46.36.

Trattner punched her ticket to the state competition for the second consecutive year. She reached Canton as a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams last season.

Trattner also placed fourth (24.03) in the 50 freestyle to advance to the state meet. She took fifth (52.86) and just missed qualifying in the 100 freestyle.

"Macy has been really consistent the last two years," Davis said. "She had the fastest split on our 400 free relay and was able to pass the Walsh girl to get first place. We were pretty excited about that."

Palazzo, who advanced to the state meet last season as a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, also took fourth (58.03) in the 100 butterfly.

Palazzo had surgery on her shins in October. The fact that she is going to complete her career in Canton as a member of two relays seems almost miraculous, according to Davis.

"Gaby wasn't able to walk for two weeks," he said. "I didn't expect her to swim much this season. She has come a long way. Although she didn't qualify in the 200 free or 100 fly, her points in those events were a difference maker."

Ham is heading to the state competition for the second consecutive year. She qualified as a member of the 200 freestyle relay team last season.

Ham had a personal-best time of 58.77 seconds to finish fifth in the 100 backstroke and a personal-best clocking of 24.42 seconds to place seventh in the 50 freestyle.

"Brittan just missed qualifying as an individual," Davis said. "She swam faster this year, but the times were faster."

Also placing in the top 10 for the Lady Explorers were senior Maggie Haas, who finished 10th (2:08.82) in the 200 IM and junior Kirsten O'Keefe, who captured 10th (1:58.55) in the 200 freestyle.

Davis also had high praise for senior Rachel Johnson, who captured 12th (1:07.95) in the 100 breaststroke and 15th (2:13.56) in the 200 IM

"Maggie had a great swim in the 200 IM," Davis said. "Rachel had a personal best in the 200 IM and she scored in the 100 breast."

Hudson finished ninth at the 2016 state meet. Davis believes his team can finish significantly higher this season.

"Our goal is top five," he said. "There will be a couple of teams fighting for first and four or five teams competing for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth spots. We're hoping to be on the good side of that."

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