PERTH AMBOY, NJ — Senior swimming captain Natalie Dalla Riva became the first James Caldwell High School participant to win the Cullen Jones Award for the Most Valuable Female Swimmer on Monday in the Super Essex Conference Championship, but the Chiefs fell short of what would have been their fourth-consecutive county title.

Although the team finished second by only three points to first-time champion West Orange, Dalla Riva swam the best times of her career—winning the 200 IM (2:06.96) and the 100 back (57.83). Breaking the school record in these two events, Dalla Riva now holds the school record for five of the eight individual events, including the 100, 200 and 500 free.

Linnea Endersby was also a standout for Caldwell, winning both the 50 free (25.68) and the 100 free (55.92). The team ultimately came out ahead of contenders Columbia and Millburn.

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The girls went into Monday’s Essex County championship as the three-time defending champion, with victories in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Until Monday, the girls' swimming team was the dominant program in Essex County.

According to head coach Stephen Trivino, the girls have an overall record of 7-2 and the boys have record of 6-3 on the season, leaving the teams only six wins away from 300 in the program’s history.

After winning only one meet in 2014 and struggling to compete with Caldwell, the West Orange girls continued to practice hard and persevere.

"In my freshman year, we were 0-10," said West Orange senior captain Nerissa Santa Cruz. "Now in my senior year, we are currently undefeated and Conference Champs."

The girls ended last season with an improved record of 6-4 and is currently undefeated at 7-0 on the season. The girls went into Monday’s meet in third place with no expectation of winning.

Santa Cruz, Narduzzi, Gilio-Malabre Simone Byun and Amy Butcher all set personal bests at the meet, and several others beat their heat times. As the 100-yard backstroke began, West Orange was in fourth place behind Columbia, Millburn and Caldwell. Mellany Smith and Santa Cruz placed 2-3 to add 25 points.

During the 100-yard breaststroke, Madeline Narduzzi placed third, Christina Gilio-Malabre fifth, and Simone Byun eleventh, to add 24 points. Heading into the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, West Orange had a five-point lead.

When Millburn took the win, Caldwell placed second, and West Orange placed third, it allowed the Mountaineers to hold onto first place by three points.  

"I'm so honored to be part of such a hardworking and positive team," said Santa Cruz. "With the winning atmosphere Coach Marc Navata and Coach Kayla Negron developed, we really turned the team around. It feels great to be from West Orange."