Team of the Year is awarded to a formidable squad who ran the gauntlet in an unusual and extremely difficult year to compete. This award is presented by BMO Harris Bank.
Neuqua Valley girls swimming
Our first nominee is no stranger to the NSW Award show and for good reason. Neuqua Valley girls swimming and diving is up for Team of the Year for the third straight season after winning back to back state championships in 2018 and 2019. There was no state meet in girls swimming this fall due to COVID restrictions, but this may have been the strongest Wildcat roster yet. It’s like the ’27 Yankees of girls swim teams. In one of the most talent filled sectionals in the state, the Wildcats finished first in every event except the 100 backstroke. Rachel Stege won the 200 and 500 yard freestyle, no surprise as she is a two time state champ in both events. Senior Megan Ciezczak won the sectional in the 100 freestyle and took second in the 100 backstroke. Tiffany Ruan has 12 state medals in her trophy case, including four first place finishes as part of 200 and 400 medley relays. She took second in the 100 free and 8th in the 100 back. Have I mentioned that transfer McKenna Stone joined the Wildcats in 2021 after earning 12 state medals at Metea Valley including the 2019 state championship in the 100 butterfly? The former Mustang took first four events! The 200 IM, the 100 fly, the 50 free and the 100 yard breaststroke. And we have not even gotten to diving, where Neuqua turned to defending state champion Jane Riehs. She won of course, with teammate Payten Orlow finishing in second. Had there been a 2021 state girls swim meet, it’s not if Neuqua Valley girls swimming would have won a third straight championship, it’s by how much?
Naperville North Badminton
Our next nominee is the only sport that moved its season up to play in the winter instead of the spring. Naperville North badminton was disappointed to see the 2020 season canceled after a great state performance in 2019, including a singles state championship from then sophomore Bhaavya Manikonda. The Huskies were strong again to no surprise, but actually lost a head to head match to Neuqua Valley early in the season. Then at the sectional meet, the orange and blue barely defeated York to win the sectional plaque by only 3.5 points. The Huskies entered the state meet with Manikonda as the only seeded player. But the entire team stepped up right from the start. Connie Lu and Sarah Yeh won four doubles matches before bowing out in the consolation quarterfinals. Singles player Shannon Xu won five matches in total, before being knocked out in the consolation semi finals. Bhaavya Manikonda showed that 2019 was no fluke. The senior won the singles state championship with relative ease, only losing one set the entire tournament. Rasana Liang and Emily Shih then went on a big time run in the consolation doubles bracket, winning five matches in a row to take 5th place. That gave the Huskies the team state championship by just a half point over Stevenson. It’s the first state badminton title for North since tying for first in 2012.
Metea Valley Girls Bowling
Metea Valley girls bowling has been a program on the rise for several years now. The Mustangs qualified for state as a team a season ago and entered 2021 with plenty of talent and confidence. The girls in black and gold rolled through the DVC, going undefeated in conference play. The most memorable moment came in late February in a win over Naperville Central. Junior Sydney Lewis rolled the first perfect 300 in program history. It was that kind of season for Metea, who only lost once on the year. Without an official IHSA state series, there was a virtual state meet held by teams across Illinois in March. Metea won the sectional and ended the day with the fourth best score in the state. Of the nine All-DVC selections, six of them were Mustang bowlers including Lewis, Meredith Olef, Bella Kilbourne, Elizabeth Mansmith, Jasmine Allen and Aliya Bennett. While it does not go down as an IHSA official top 5 finish, the 2021 season was still one for the record books for Metea Valley girls bowling.
Benet Academy Girls Volleyball
Up next in our Team of the Year category is another 2019 state champion who was unable to defend their title due to girls volleyball playing a condensed spring schedule. But for Benet Academy, just because there was no state tournament, that doesn’t mean there was not state level competition. The Redwings faced perennial powers Mother McAuley, Wheaton Warrenville South and ended the season with a three set win over rival Marist to win the Conference Championship. Senior Rachel Muisenga set the tone for the team and was rewarded with the ESCC Playof the Year Award and was named the Gatorade Play of the Year award for the state of Illinois. Seniors Kyla Kenney, Caroline Doyle and junior Ann Marie Remmes were also All-Conference selectionas. Daria Rodriguez and Jaclynn Budreck were key contributors as well, helping BA to a perfect 10-0 record. The Redwings went 51-1 over the past two years combined. While the season was shifted and shortened, Benet girls volleyball looked as daunting as ever in 2021.
Naperville North Girls Water Polo
After finishing in third place at state in 2018 and as the runner up in 2019, Naperville North girls water polo thought for sure that 2020 was going to be their year to lift the state championship trophy for the first time. Obviously they never got that chance, but entering 2021 there was enough returning talent to provide optimism. The Huskies went on to quite frankly, demolish the competition through the regular season. A 23-0 record entering the post season with the closest match all year being a 12-8 win over New Trier in early April. North then steamrolled through the sectionals, winning their three games by a combined score of 46-6. The Huskies did not let overconfidence seep in, easily toppling Lyons and New Trier en route to a state championship rematch against Stevenson. Once again, Naperville North could not be contained as the Huskies took home the first place trophy after a 15-6 victory. Senior Anna Tarantino was the most unstoppable player in the state, scoring over 150 goals on the year. Mary and Sarah Crossett, Claire Jansen, Kelsey Wessel, Alex Mantel and Claire Brown also provided plenty of scoring punch. It also does not hurt to have one of the state best goalie’s in Grace Raquel providing plenty of cover. The 2021 Huskies did more than win their first state title, at 29-0 they showcased one of the best seasons in IHSA water polo history.
Neuqua Valley Boys Track and Field
Our final nominated for Team of the Year just wrapped up the season a week ago. Neuqua Valley boys track and field has always had a great balance of short and long distance runners. That combo led to the program’s second state championship this spring. Nicolas Dovalovsky took care of the distance, finishing third at state in the 1600 and running the anchor leg in the state champion 4X800 relay, alongside Austin Burke, Leif Anderson, and Nick Rowling. Neuqua also got points from the 4X200 and 4X400 relays. Junior Max Mitchell ran in the 4X400 and was All State in both the 200 and 400 meters for the Wildcats. While Neuqua did not score any points at state from the field events, it was still a very deep and talented group. James Ammenhauser was the DVC runner up in the long and triple jump. Goutham Baskaran was the DVC champion in the pole vault. Senior Martin Keifer won the discus at the Gus Scott Invite and junior Elijah Darden made it to state as the discus sectional runner up. As the DVC, sectional and 3A boys state track and field champions, Neuqua Valley once again proved the power of the blue and gold running program.
And the Team of the Year Award goes to…. Naperville North Girls Water Polo!
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