STRATFORD—From the moment the wall was touched for the final time, Bunnell High School senior swimmer and co-captain Julia Baldowski struggled to contain her emotions.
Sure, the Bulldogs had clinched the meet—an 88-78 victory from the Blue and White that was, coach Adam Fielding said, Bunnell’s 35th straight victory over cross-town rival Stratford—but the impact of the moment was hitting home.
Eleven seniors—seven from Bunnell, four more from Stratford—had just taken part in their final dual meet of their careers, and Senior Night ceremonies were about to begin.
Emotional words, some tears, one last ceremonial lap down the length of the Flood Middle School pools with gallons of memories in each swimmer’s wake.
“I’ve grown up with them,” Baldowski said, her voice again catching with emotion. “They’re some of my best friends.”
Those wearing the red and black suits of the Red Devils felt the same way.
“They’re my rocks,” said Stratford captain Lilly Varvella. “They’ve been with me for the last four years, in season, off-season. We’re always together doing things.”
On Tuesday night, it was one last meet together.
Bunnell’s Baldowski, Claudia Chudecki, Lili Dowell, Kelly Marie Garcia, Elizabeth Thompson, Emma Walton, Julia Walton and Sophia Walton joining Stratford’s Varvella, Brianna Burgos, Claire Noccioli, and Sophia Starkey for one last in-town rivalry meet.
A packed house greeted the swimmers, giving both teams a vibe and energy they normally don’t get to compete under during the regular season.
“They always swim so emotionally in this meet,” Bunnell 10th-year head coach Adam Fielding said. “It’s always a fast meet, even though it shouldn’t be. They love it. Usually, there might be 10 or 12 people in the stands and today there are more than 100 people screaming. It’s really a lot of fun for them.”
For the Bulldogs, the meet itself showcased the program’s strength and depth as compared to the upstart Red Devils, who feature their largest team, roster-wise, in years.
Dowell won the 200 free (2:18.64) and 500 free (6:05.38) while junior Rose Nieto won the 50 free (26.36) and 100 fly (1:03.40) to lead the way for Bunnell.
Taylor Niemiec, a sophomore, also won the 200 IM (2:27.34)
“I think the team overall swam really well,” said Dowell, who co-captains the team along with Baldowski. “A lot of girls are still trying to get into SWCs and states and dropped times so that was a big motivator, too.”
Bunnell’s 200 medley relay team (Amaya Davis, Nieto, Niemiec, Dowell) opened the meet with a victory in 2:04.44, and 200 free relay team (Amaya Davis, Niemiec, Dowell, Nieto) won in 1:49.00.
“We looked really good,” Fielding said. “The girls going on to SWCs and States showed they’re ready to go, and those who swam their last meet gave it everything they had.”
For Stratford, Leah Foito won the 100 free (1:01.47), Sarah Shein won the 100 back (1:15.91) and Claire Noccioli took first in the 100 breast (1:15.25).
Stratford’s 400 free relay team (Foito, Ceili Roberts, Ciara Roberts, Shein) also won in 4:33.65.
“They did awesome,” Stratford coach Laura Roberts said. “They swam their hearts out. They love what they’re doing, and they love getting the support like they did tonight from their families and friends.”
This year’s group of Stratford High seniors has led the program for the past two years since nobody graduated a year ago.
“This group has been our seniors for the last two seasons,” Roberts said. “We really got to know these girls and they’ll always have a special place in our heart.”
Likewise, Fielding has had 10 senior classes go through Bunnell during his tenure, but this group will have a special place for him, too.
“It’s a good group of leaders and they’re fantastic human beings,” Fielding said. “It’s all love and you can tell from their (Senior Night) speeches. They love being around each other and they understand we’re all working together here, and that mentality makes them push each other even harder.”
And to have that one last dual meet in front of such a large crowd, being with your closest friends in the world, well, that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Baldowski said. “I look forward to this meet every season. It’s a type of energy we’ve never experienced, the whole town coming together. It’s just a great night.”
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