EDINA — After finishing as the runner-up in each of the previous 16 seasons, the Stillwater synchronized swimming team moved back to the front of the line while capturing the state championship on Saturday, May 29 at South View Middle School.
It was Stillwater’s first state championship since 2003 and the program’s 19th overall. The performance extended a remarkable run of success for the Ponies, who have never finished lower than second in the 47-year history of this competition.
“I remember taking over in 2013 and thinking maybe in a few years we can do it,” Ponies coach Kathy Henderson said. “It was certainly a goal we had, but it was tough every single year and we were always so thankful for second place because there was always third and fourth place right behind us. In the back of our heads we thought this was something we can do and something we were working towards.”
The Ponies swept the short, long and extended team events to outdistance runner-up Wayzata 154-84 and the rest of the 14-team state field. Forest Lake followed in third place with 80 points while Edina (64) and St. Louis Park (61) completed the top five.
Stillwater ended a run of 13 consecutive state titles for the Trojans, who took over the top spot after three straight championships from St. Louis Park from 2004 to 2006.
“It was so exciting, and something we felt was possible all season long,” Henderson said. “Although much of this year was just being thankful for a season, deep down our girls were hungry for a state win. It wasn’t easy.”
Stillwater finished first in 8 of the 12 events and placed all 20 of its routines among the top seven in each category, which is the cutoff for scoring points.
“They all accumulate points and you need to be strong in all three divisions,” Henderson said. “In most years we’re real strong in one or two, but weaker in another, but this year I thought we were strong in all three categories and that was really what helped. We do need that depth in all three categories to pull off that win.”
The Ponies won the extended team division by more than two points as Rubie Ballantyne, Bella Chau, Annie Gritters, Leigha Kraft, Luci Miller, Julianna Silva, Paige Schmit and Grace Sneden combined to earn a score of 70.326. Wayzata followed in second with a score of 68.076.
Stillwater also secured first-place finishes in the long (65.517) and short (60.034) team divisions.
“It was a full team effort,” Henderson said. “Swimmers had to be great in all events that we entered into the meet. Wayzata, Forest Lake, and Edina were our main competition this year, and all of them performed really well.”
It has been at least two decades since the Ponies won all three of the team divisions at state.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve done that,” Henderson said. “Teams are worth the most points, so that’s pretty big.”
Stillwater also won the short and long divisions in duet and trio.
Elaina Lokken, Hailey Schmit and Hanna Wiese posted a winning score of 63.244 in the short trio while Sophia Chau, Annie Gritters and Paige Schmit received top marks in the long trio (66.299). The Ponies placed three entries among the top five in the long trio and added a fifth-place showing in the short trio.
In duet, Lokken and Wiese won the short division with a score of 60.741. It was an impressive performance after the Stillwater pair placed second in this event at the East Section Meet a week earlier.
Rubie Ballantyne and Paige Schmit finished first in the long duet while teammates Sophia Chau-Annie Gritters (64.797) and Kya Hodgdon-Ellie Kill (62.877) followed in third and fifth place.
Seventh-grader Hailey Schmit won the short solo division — boosted by the highest figures score of any competitor in the state meet. She posted a score of 69.167 in the solo, which was more than 5.5 points ahead of runner-up Ava Gilbert (63.563) of Blake. Stillwater also received third-place finishes from Bella Chau (65.608) in the long solo and Julianna Silva (66.952) in the extended solo.
Figures are performed at both the section and state meets in most years, but in order to make the logistics work for state this season they were held for all teams on May 8. Those figures scores applied to both the section and state meets.
Leigha Kraft placed fourth overall in figures and Paige Schmit wasn’t far behind in eighth place.
Stillwater had 11 of the top 25 figures scores, which counts as 50 percent of the score. Wayzata with four and Edina with three were the only teams other than Stillwater with two swimmers in the top 25 of the figures results.
“Those figure scores are 50 percent of our score, so they’re very important,” Henderson said. “That was by far the best figures meet we’ve maybe had since 2003. Usually we’re really strong in our routines, but sometimes lag behind and that usually kills us, but this year our figures scores were right up there.”
Hailey Schmit, Paige Schmit and Silva each earned all-state honors for the Ponies.
After having the entire 2020 season canceled, there were also some anxious moments for the Ponies throughout this season. A COVID-19 related quarantine caused the team to miss an entire week of practice late in the season. The Ponies were cleared just two days before sections.
“It takes a little time to bounce back from that,” said Henderson, who was also named the sport’s State Coach of the Year. “Maybe our swims at sections weren’t 100 percent, but we still did great. That extra week leading into state is what we needed. We use the last few weeks for that high-end polishing to get ready to be performed to the best of our abilities. We lost a week of it, but had some longer practices when we came back.”
That uncertainty existed throughout the season.
“Honestly, it was my biggest fear this whole year and with all the rules changing we were hoping things would be more relaxed, but schools were hit pretty hard in the spring and it was always in the back of my mind,” Henderson said. “We didn’t even know if there was going to be a season or a state meet, but we just kept pushing through and said we have to make this season happen and hopefully we’ll win.”
When the Ponies finished second to Wayzata in 2019 it was by the narrowest margin in a decade, providing hope that Stillwater could eventually overtake the Trojans.
“We didn’t think we were going to win in 2019, but we knew we were going to be close and when we did end up that close we knew a win was within reach,” Henderson said. “We had a big slew of seniors in 2020 and they really wanted it and it was devastating to lose that season for them. We saw a couple of them last week and it was kind of heart-breaking because it was something they missed out on.”
Stillwater’s final dual meet of the regular season was conducted virtually, a reminder of just how precarious the season and it’s outcome was. Parents and spectators were unable to attend most meets and even practices were split into two sessions, which made for some long days for the coaches.
“The split practices were really tough because we do build so much camaraderie between our team and we couldn’t do that with one group separated from another,” Henderson said. “But it helped us focus a little more and we might even do a few split practices in the figure, so we did learn from that. We’re so thankful that everyone was so flexible.”
1. Stillwater 154; 2. Wayzata 84; 3. Forest Lake 80; 4. Edina 64; 5. St. Louis Park 61; 6. Blake 31; 7. Richfield 9; 8. Hopkins 8; 9. Columbia Heights 6; 10. Eden Prairie 5; 11, tie, Bloomington 1, Itasca 1, Maple Grove/Osseo/Park Center 1 and Prior Lake 1.
Short — 1. Hailey Schmit (St) 69.167.
Long — 1. Claire Oh (Bl) 65.991; 3. Bella Chau (St) 65.608.
Extended — 1. Izzy Steffen (Ed) 68.597; 3. Julianna Silva (St) 66.952.
Short — 1. Elaina Lokken-Hanna Wiese (St) 60.741.
Long — 1. Rubie Ballantyne-Paige Schmit (St) 67.465; 3. Sophia Chau-Annie Gritters (St) 64.797; 5. Kya Hodgdon-Ellie Kill (St) 62.877.
Extended — 1. Ruby Ravnholdt-Anna Fisher (Way) 69.851; 5. Bella Chau-Julianna Silva (St) 67.405; 7. Luci Miller-Grace Sneden 66.540.
Short — 1. Elaina Lokken-Hailey Schmit-Hanna Wiese (St) 63.244; 5. Gabbi Chau-Emily Dicks-Kaelynn Grecian (St) 58.671.
Long — 1. Sophia Chau-Annie Gritters-Paige Schmit (St) 66.299; 4. Kate Jentink-Maylin Kennedy-Olivia Kuslich (St) 62.967; 5. Isana Downing-Megan Johnson-Chloe Knuteson (St) 62.828.
Extended — 1. Mikyla Dohm-Anna Fisher-Ruby Ravnholdt (Way) 68.371; 2. Rubie Ballantyne-Luci Miller-Grace Sneden (St) 66.846; 5. Avery Hoge-Kya Hodgdon-Leigha Kraft (St) 63.938.
Short — 1. Stillwater (Gabbi Chau, Emily Dicks, Nina Djukelic, Ava Fox, Kaelynn Grecian, Lauren Guinee, Elaina Lokken and Hanna Wiese) 60.034.
Long — 1. Stillwater (Hannah Bliss, Sophia Chau, Isana Downing, Kate Jentink, Megan Johnson, Olivia Kuslich, Sierra Penning and Hailey Schmit) 65.517.
Extended — 1. Stillwater (Rubie Ballantyne, Bella Chau, Annie Gritters, Leigha Kraft, Luci Miller, Julianna Silva, Paige Schmit and Grace Sneden) 70.326; 6. Stillwater (Kya Hodgdon, Avery Hoge, Maylin Kennedy, Ellie Kill, Chloe Knuteson and Maddie Stricker) 63.986.
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com