PERTH AMBOY, NJ - The West Orange High School girls swimming team won its first-ever Super Essex Conference championship on Monday, beating out contenders Columbia, Millburn and Caldwell to take top honors with 179 points.
The swimming Mountaineers will join the girls volleyball team as first-ever conference champions, making them part of West Orange High School history.
"In my freshman year, we were 0-10," said senior captain Nerissa Santa Cruz. "Now in my senior year, we are currently undefeated and Conference Champs."
The Caldwell girls headed into the championship as the three-time defending champion, with title victories in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Until Monday, the Caldwell girls swimming team was the dominant program in Essex County.
After winning only one meet in 2014 and struggling to compete with Caldwell, the Mountaineers continued to practice hard and persevere.
The girls ended last season with an improved record of 6-4 and is currently undefeated at 7-0 on the season. For the first time, the girls swim team will have a conference championship banner in Tarnoff Gym.
The team practices in the pool at Rutgers University in Newark and several of the swimmers also participate in club swimming. Coach Mark Navata, a long-time coach of the West Orange Waves Swim team, has helped to develop and support both the girls and boys teams along with assistant coach Kayla Negron.
The girls went into the meet in third place with no expectation of winning. Claudine Bernadotte, one of the team's best sprinters and anchor for the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, had to forgo the meet due to a death in the family, making a victory tenuous at best.
Then things began to change.
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 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."
Caldwell senior captain Natalie Dalla Riva became the first James Caldwell swimmer to win the Cullen Jones Award for the most valuable female swimmer. She also 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).