McHenry's Payton Lange qualified for the girls state swim meet as a freshman and sophomore, becoming the second Warriors swimmer to medal (top-12 finish) two years ago, along with two-time state champion Brianne Fowles.
But with the team's third head coach in three seasons, Lange decided to sit out her junior year.
When Lange's club coach of four-plus years, George Keenan, was named head coach for the Warriors in July, the Iowa-bound senior was thrilled to return. Lange said many factors, not just coaching changes, went into her decision.
"I missed the girls a lot," said Lange, who continued to swim club. "It was a very difficult decision. I had a lot of stuff going on with my personal life and student life. I didn’t want to leave this group of girls.
"I didn’t see one of them today, and I was sad. It’s a totally different atmosphere in high school, and I couldn’t have asked for my senior year to go any better than it has already. I’m so happy."
Since returning, Lange has enjoyed a breakout season. At last week's Fox Valley Conference Invitational, Lange broke two meet records in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle and was named Most Valuable Swimmer.
One of those records, the 500 free, was held by her older sister, Hannah, a sophomore at the University of South Dakota.
"She came home last weekend and we were joking around," Lange said. "She was like, ‘You can swim fast, just not fast enough. It’s the only thing I have left in conference.' We go back and forth for as long as I can remember, but she was really happy for me."
Lange also broke three longstanding McHenry pool records this year, previously held by Fowles. All three – the 100, 200 and 500 free – stood for 25 or more years.
On Saturday, Lange and the Warriors will compete at the Lake Forest Sectional with the hopes of qualifying for the state meet, which starts Nov. 16 at Evanston Township High School. Woodstock co-op, which combines swimmers from Woodstock and Woodstock North, will also look to extend its season.
Cary-Grove and Crystal Lake co-op will swim at the Stevenson Sectional, while Dundee-Crown, Huntley and two-time defending Fox Valley Conference champion Jacobs co-op will compete at St. Charles East.
Lange, who will compete in the 200 free and 500 free along with the 200 free and 400 free relays, said she is most looking forward to the increased competition that comes with the intense pressures of the postseason.
She already has come under state-qualifying times in both the 200 and 500 free, at last week's FVC Meet. The 200 and 400 free relay team of Lange, seniors Caileigh McCafferty and Megan Frost and sophomore Melisa Nava are about a second away from state-qualifying standards in both events.
"It would mean the world to me," Lange said of making it back to state as a senior. "I’ve never swum in an atmosphere like the state meet. It’s just so loud and everybody is so excited to be there. Everyone is so pumped and the adrenaline is so high.
"I would love to get back, especially with one or two of our relays. I just want to get in and go."
The Warriors did not win conference but won seven of 11 events overall to take second. McCafferty finished first in the 200 IM, and Frost placed first in the 50 free and 100 free.
McCafferty advanced to state in the 200 IM as as sophomore, but did not qualify last season. McCafferty and Lange advanced to state in the 200 and 400 free relays as sophomores, and Frost also was on the 400 free relay.
McCafferty will swim in the 200 IM and 100 butterfly at sectionals. She had season-best times in both events at conference.
"We all trust our training, so when we all started feeling really great leading up to the meet, we all knew it was going to be a good meet," McCafferty said. "To make it back to state, that would be a great finish to my senior year. I think we're all really motivated."
Keenan said the Warriors are hoping to qualify for state in four individual events and two relays, if not more. He has seen Lange improve every year at the club level and thinks she is ready to take the next step.
Lange finished sixth at state in the 100 free as a sophomore and placed 11th in the 50 free.
"It’s been baby steps, but, recently, she’s really stepped it up and I think she’s ready to go," Keenan said. "It's been a really good season for her, and hopefully she finishes out on top."
Lange, who stuck with Keenan in club when he moved from the Woodstock Dolphins to the Mundelein Mustangs, said he has always been one of her biggest supporters.
"He’s my third parent. I owe him a lot," Lange said. "He’s done so much for me. No one has believed in me like he has."
Depending on her performances on Saturday, Lange will taper after sectionals and hopes to see personal best times at state.
"I think that we’re all really motivated right now after conference," Lange said. "We’re like a small little band of kids here at McHenry, so I think if we all work really hard for it, we can definitely pull it off."
WHERE THEY SWIM
Here is a look at the sectional girls swimming meets and where local teams will compete on Saturday:
Lake Forest Sectional
Local team competing: McHenry, Woodstock co-op, individuals from Marian Central and Richmond-Burton
Local teams competing Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake co-op
St. Charles East Sectional
Local teams competing: Dundee-Crown, Huntley, Jacobs co-op, individuals from Marengo