The State College girls’ 200 medley relay team already had plenty to celebrate.
The Lady Little Lions broke the 1:50 mark for the first time all season Wednesday in the PIAA Class AAA preliminaries. And all four swimmers — Sarah Koberna, Kirsten Hillsley, Kate Cooper and Fiona Vashaw — turned in lifetime-best splits to finish in 1:47.74.
After a clock malfunction in the event’s third heat, their official finish remained a mystery until State College teammate Courtney Quinn delivered the news in the locker room at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium.
There was more to celebrate. State College finished sixth to earn a spot in Wednesday night’s finals, where it finished 10th overall with a time of 1:35.67.
“We just started jumping up and down,” Koberna said. “It was really fun. It was such a surprise.”
The Lady Little Lions medley relay team was the bright spot for State College on the first day of the state championships. Cooper qualified for the consolation finals in the girls’ 100 butterfly with a 12th-place finish (57.37) in the prelims. And on the boys’ side, State
College’s Bradley Gibble earned a spot in the Class AAA 200 IM consolation finals after a ninth-place finish (1:54.06), and the 200 medley relay team finished in 1:37.50 for 14th place to qualify for the consolation finals. Gibble went on to win the consolation finals and finished ninth overall with a time of 1:52.50.
The girls’ medley relay team was also the surprise of the day.
In his two seasons at State College, coach Ryan Sprang said the team never broke 1:50. The Lady Little Lions won this season’s District 6 championship with a time of 1:50.21.
Heading into Wednesday, Sprang said he thought it would be an uphill battle for his team to qualify for the consolations. Koberna, Hillsley, Cooper and Vashaw exceeded all expectations.
“To be honest with you, I would have been thrilled with a 1:49,” Sprang said. “I would have been blown away with a 1:48. With a 1:47 and a place in the top eight, I’m speechless.”
Koberna got State College off to a fast start in the event’s first heat. Hillsley matched her pace and had the Lady Little Lions among the leaders at the halfway point.
“I knew since Sarah went out so fast that I had to keep up,” Hillsley said. “And I was really motivated to do well. Then seeing that I went a lifetime best after that, and that we all did, I was so excited.
“I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since.”
Hillsley said she never imagined finishing in sixth and getting to the finals. Cooper, who swam the third leg of the race, was excited to see how much State College improved its time.
“The 1:47 was definitely a surprise,” Cooper said.
The surprising preliminary time became official when Vashaw completed the race. Vashaw said it’s nerve-wracking to go last in the relay. But she was ready to handle the pressure after watching her teammates put the Lady Little Lions in position for a strong finish.
And then she closed out the unexpected performance with her own lifetime-best split.
“I heard all three of my teammates cheer,” Vashaw said. “And then I looked up and it was like a two-second drop, so that was really exciting for us.”
The Lady Little Lions finished third in their heat and waited through the next two to see if their time would be good enough to reach the finals.
The suspense grew when the clock broke down during the third heat. The celebration started again when they learned they made the finals.
Their coach couldn’t have been more thrilled with the performance.
“I just want them to have a good swim and be happy with their result,” Sprang said. “And I just did not expect that at all. I would not have predicted that at all, and I’m a pretty optimistic guy. There’s just no way I would have predicted that fast.”