by Andrew Garda
NEWARK—The Montclair High School girls swimming team ended a decade-long drought in a record-breaking performance that saw the Mounties capture the Essex County championship Monday at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
In addition to winning their first team title since 2009, MHS junior Devon Muldoon won her third consecutive Cullen Jones Award for the most outstanding swimmer in the girls’ meet, while freshman Ela Habjan set a pair of meet records.
Montclair outpaced second-place Livingston, 217 points to 182, to win the title.
On the boys’ side, Montclair swam hard in a back-and-forth battle with perennial champion Seton Hall Prep. But while the Pirates claimed their 23rd consecutive championship with 289 points, the Mounties were a worthy challenger, finishing second with 268.5 points, far ahead of third-place Newark Academy’s total of 122.
The MHS girls had a commanding 28-point lead over Livingston after 16 events had been run, one that would be tough for Livingston to overcome. It would have been easy and understandable if the Mountie girls had treated the final races as a victory lap, but they attacked their last races with the same aggression they had coming off the blocks in the first races.
“They were not cutting corners, they were just doing what they have to do, swimming hard,” he said. “They still wanted to make Meet of Champions cuts, which they got. [They] had a bunch of best times. Obviously, Ela had the two county records. I know she’s very happy and I couldn’t be happier for her. All in all, I think it was a great day.”
Muldoon said the swimmers weren’t really thinking about the points. “We were just thinking that we need to win every single race that we [swim], and we need to try and give it our all and touch the wall. And once you’re done, you just try and leave everything in the pool,” she said.
The last time the girls won, Koenigsfest was an assistant coach.
“Yeah, it was the first time since 2009 that we got it, and it was the first time I’d won a county on the girls side, so that was pretty nice.”
Muldoon won the 200-yard individual medley and the 500-yard freestyle, in addition to being part of the Mounties’ champion 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay teams, to become the first girl to win three Cullen Jones Awards. Former Mountie great Marc Sambolin won three in a row from 2012 to 2014.
But, Muldoon says, she was more excited for the team win than her MVP win. She was joined by Lily Foung, Habjan and Mia Padberg in the 200 medley relay win, and Sol Jordan, Padbreg and Habjan in the 400 free relay.
“It means so much to all of us today,” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking about if I should go about time or if I want to get MVP. I was really thinking about the team and I just wanted the best for us. We knew that we could win and we just pulled it off so well and I’m so proud of our team.”
Muldoon was also excited for what Habjan has accomplished, setting record times of 24.07 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle, and 57.12 in the 100 backstroke.
“[She’s] really helped out. She’s just an amazing sport, she really gave her all and she’s definitely one of the reasons we won,” Muldoon said.
“The girls, clearly Devon and Ela just were unbelievable, you know each getting their own events and then getting [first place] in the relays,” Koenigsfest said. “You really couldn’t ask for anything more as far as that goes.”
Koenigsfest also mentioned Foung, a sophomore who recently returned from injury, as a huge factor.
She, along with Muldoon, Habjan and senior Mia Padberg edged Livingston by less than a second in the 200 medley relay, finishing with a time of 1:50.39, good enough to qualify for the Meet of Champions.
Muldoon also praised the freshman class of swimmers, crediting them as a huge reason why the team won.
“We have an amazing freshman class that really helped our team do as well as we did,” she said. “These girls are really fast and they helped us get not just first but four, five or sixth [place]. All those other places that are really important.”
Mountie boys prove they belong
Despite falling short of their goal to break Seton Hall’s iron grip on the county title, Koenigsfest said the Mounties know what they’re capable of after toppling SHP in a dual meet back on Dec. 3, and he felt that the dual meet was actually a better indicator of what the Mountie boys can do.
“Absolutely, [beating SHP here] was one goal we wanted to achieve, obviously it would have been nice to get them in counties too,” he said. “But if you’ve got to pick one of the other, I’ll take the individual [dual meet].”
In dual meets, teams can only run swimmers in three lanes, whereas each team has four swimmers at the county meet. In a situation where every point counts, Seton Hall’s extra depth made a huge difference.
“It was just fast racing,” Koenigsfest said. “I mean their guys were swimming out of their minds, and so were our guys. They just had a little bit more depth, so it was interesting how that fourth lane [helped them], as opposed to three lanes kind of benefit us in the dual meet.”
As Seton Hall pushed, the Mounties consistently responded, especially in the relay races.
“The relays were phenomenal,” Koenigsfest said. “Tommy [White], Spyros [Salatas], Mizell [McEachin], Justin [Ellis], Alex [Petroff], Jarrett [Driever], they were all swimming just out of their minds.”
Both the Mounties’ 200 medley and 400 free relay teams took second place, with Petroff, Leo Powers, Marcos Gutierrez and McEachin swimming the 200 and Ellis, White, Petroff and Salatas swimming the 400. Driever picked up third-place individual finishes in both the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle.
“Like I’ve said before, it’s hard to pick out just a couple of guys, they swim as a team,” Koenigsfest said.
Gearing up for states
The Mounties have two more dual meets remaining, tomorrow night (Jan. 24) against Millburn at Montclair State, and Tuesday, Jan. 28, at West Essex.
Both the boys and girls teams are undefeated in dual meets this season (7-0), meaning that they’ll be eyeing NJSIAA North 1, Group A sectional team titles. The tournament will be seeded Jan. 30, with opening-round matches Feb. 4 and Feb. 7. The sectional finals will be at Passaic Tech on Feb. 13-14.
“State tournament starts [soon], so before we know it we’re gearing up on that,” Koenigfest said. “So, I’m excited for the boys and the girls on that too.”