The Shippensburg University swim team followed up its third-place 2017 finish with a sixth-place finish in the 2018 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championships last weekend at the York YMCA.
The Raiders had multiple swimmers earn Top-10 finishes in SU history, while also breaking multiple school relay records over the course of the event.
On the first night of competition, O’Toole defended her title in the 200-yard Individual Medley (IM) while contributing to SU’s school record time in the 200-yard medley relay.
Coming into the event, O’Toole had been battling injuries but she persevered to reclaim her conference title with a time of 2:01.71. Her time was an NCAA “B” cut, which ranks her eighth on the NCAA Division II performance lists and should earn her a national championship qualification.
“It was a great way to kick things off and it’s hard to win events in our conference,” Verge said. “Steph has been battling injuries this year but she did a great job of blocking that out and competing. Her last 50 was one of the best I’ve seen her do.”
While winning the title last season was great for O’Toole, this year’s title meant so much more, after she overcame injuries and the loss of one of her best friends in Tamara Ovejera, who died in November.
“We all lost a good friend this year,” O’Toole said. “We were all swimming for each other and also for her. It’s really not about me. I put my injury behind me and did my best to move forward.”
The night ended with the Raider 200-medley relay team finishing third with a time of 1:45.71, to break the record of 1:46.52 set at the 2012 PSAC Championships. The relay consisted of junior Carly Alvarado, sophomore Gabriella Johnson, O’Toole and senior Jeanette Welch.
“The relay team just got going,” Verge said. “Anytime you can break a school record and grab a time that is the fastest you’ve ever done is spectacular. We were fortunate we were able to keep it going.”
The Raiders also earned strong finishes from Gracee Tothero in the 200-yard IM as she finished in 18th with a PR of 2:10.79. Welch finished 21st in the 50-yard freestyle with a PR of 24.79 seconds to round out the scoring on Wednesday night. SU sat in eighth place after the first day of events.
The Raider relay team once again dominated on Thursday, breaking a school record in the 400-yard medley relay with a time of 3:51.42 to break the record that was set two years ago at George Mason with a time of 3:52.17.
The same team of O’Toole, Johnson, Alvarado and Welch accomplished the feat, as they finished third in the event.
“To have two all-conference relays and school records, and to do so on back-to-back days, is a really wonderful accomplishment,” Verge said. “We’ve had a lot of really great swimmers go through our program, so to have both medley relay records be set at this meet really speaks a lot for their talent level.”
It was another standout day from one of SU’s biggest stars, as O’Toole grabbed second in the 100-yard butterfly. Coming into the finals as the No. 2 seed and continuing to battle through pain, O’Toole toughed it out to grab second. The finish was monumental for O’Toole, considering she was just happy to be able to compete.
“I’ve been injured a lot this year, so honestly it was just great to be able to compete,” O’Toole said. “It was exciting to be able to cheer on the team and swim for my friend Tam.”
Other notable finishes included a Top 10 finish in the 200-freestyle relay by Johnson, Welch, Erin Fife and Mari Reott with a time of 1:39.11, Fife’s Top 15 finish in the 100-yard butterfly, as well as Johnson and Alvarado finishing 17th and 19th, respectively in the 200-yard freestyle.
The Raiders sat in seventh place after two days of competition.
SU made its biggest run at points on Day 3, as O’Toole and Johnson each had spectacular showings in the 100-yard breaststroke, earning Top 3 finishes in the event.
O’Toole and Johnson finished second and third, respectively, with times of 1:02.78 and 1:03.51. Johnson came into the day second in school history in the event while O’Toole sat third, but both of their times pushed them into the Top 2 in the event.
O’Toole broke Rikki Sargent’s school record of 1:04.13 set in 2014.
“That was really, really exciting,” Verge said of O’Toole and Johnson’s performances. “They were tied at the 50 mark, and then they really got home. Steph was really closing — with five more yards she might have won — and that’s just a big PR for Gabbie. She really crushed it. It was a great way to have that swim come together, with both of them there.”
Other notable finishes on Day 3 included Top 15 finishes by Alvarado and Reott in the 100-yard backstroke and a 15th place finish by Fife in the 200-yard butterfly.
The Raiders made up significant points on Friday, but still found themselves in sixth at the end of Day 3. SU sat 27 points behind Gannon University for fifth.
“We have a big task ahead of us tomorrow to stay in the Top 5,” Verge said. “It’s a great goal for us considering all that’s happened this year. The matchup is a little tight with Gannon, and we can’t forget about East Stroudsburg at our heels.”
The Raiders had an outstanding finish to the 2018 championship meet with great performances in the 200-yard breaststroke as O’Toole, Johnson and Tothero each finished in the Top 10 to give the Raiders the edge they needed to pass Gannon for a Top-5 finish.
O’Toole grabbed second place in the event with a time of 2:18.00, while Johnson earned third with a time of 2:18.43 — a lifetime best of more than two seconds to put her in second place in the event all-time at SU. Tothero had a wonderful finish in the “B” final to grab 10th with a time of 2:23.17 to put her in fourth all-time at SU in the event, while earning a huge PR.
“It was a really fun race to watch,” Verge said of the 200-yard breaststroke. “What really set the tone was Gracee crushing her swim in the consolation final and nearly winning the heat. It was a huge PR and I think it helped Steph and Gabbie really get out and feel confident, and they just went after it. Steph had a little push at the end and Gabbie made a huge drop from the morning.”
O’Toole finished in first or second in all of her individual swims and should safely qualify or the NCAA National Championships in two weeks, while Johnson will have to wait to see if her NCAA “B” cut in the 200-yard breaststroke will be enough to qualify her. She is approximately 24th on the performance list in the event. Qualifications will be announced next week.
Other top finishes included an 11th-place finish in the 200-yard backstroke by Alvarado, a 13th-place finish in the backstroke by Reott and a seventh place relay finish by Welch, Reott, Fife and Alvarado in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Overall, SU finished in fifth place, a mark that Verge was happy with.
“I think it was a great finish to be in the Top 5 in our conference,” Verge said. “We were a little down from last year, but we had a different makeup to the team this year and had a little adversity. But we kept battling, and we knew we just had to be tougher than others.”
The SU women’s swim team’s season will conclude in March with the NCAA Division II National Championship meet in two weeks.
O’Toole and possibly Johnson will represent SU.