The Spring Lake girls swim and dive team is hoping this weekend's Division 3 state finals meet at the Holland Aquatic Center will serve as that moment, as the program sends 11 swimmers, including eight underclassmen, to the biggest race of the season.
"The freshmen coming in this year have really raised the bar for the whole program," said first-year Spring Lake head coach Bryon Kelly. "Leila Kahler might place in both of her individual events this weekend, then you have kids like Avery Flynn, who is anchoring our 200 medley relay team.
"Our main scorers this year have been mostly freshmen and sophomores, which is exciting. We've got veterans like Sara Mumby, who scores points, but the underclassmen are really doing most of the damage, as far as scoring. That really helps change the attitude and energy around a program when you have three or four years to work with kids and see them progress. Especially when most of them are contributing from the very start.
"It should be an exciting couple of years here if the girls continue to stay committed."
For some of the veterans on the squad, some early season struggles have given way to breakthrough performances and a lot more positivity.
"It's kind of been a rollercoaster this season," said Spring Lake senior Louise Vega. "There's been a lot of ups and downs, but it's been fun. "We've all really grown as swimmers and we all feel like we are peaking at the right time."
"Individually, we all had separate goals we wanted to reach this season, but we knew as a team, we probably weren't going to reach our goals as a group if we didn't reach our individual goals," said freshman Leila Kahler. "Every one of us has been improving on our times and it's really motivated everybody to work a little harder."
No one has worked harder to help the squad meet those goals than Kelly, who also serves as the school's middle school swim coach. Despite jumping into a new situation, his background knowledge of the swimmers, combined with the help of last year's head coach Kaci Wiebenga, has helped the transition take hold without much wake in the pool.
"It's been a brand new experience for me," he said. "Thank goodness I have Kaci here helping me out. I'm 48 years old and she's 27, and she's like my mentor out here when it comes to coaching girls. I'll bounce ideas off her before I bring it to practice and she'll either say, ‘good idea, bad idea or horrible idea.' That has really helped me get a better understand for what works and what doesn't work at this level.
"I know most of the girls from being their middle school coach in sixth and seventh grade, so we have that relationship built in and that really, really helps when you're trying to teach a new group and install a new coaching style and philosophy."
For four-year varsity standout Sara Mumby, the change in coaching is nothing new. In fact, she views it as an exciting new challenge.
"I think it's been fun to kind of experiment with how different coaches prefer to train," she said. "I've had four different coaches since I've been here, so I've seen four different coaching styles and I've picked up on things I like and things I don't like.
"I think it's helped that he has coached most of us before, so we knew his coaching style heading in."
Wiebenga, who is serving as an assistant this season after becoming a new mother, is excited about all the improvements she's seeing.
"I think there's just more excitement in the program," she said. "Last year, a lot of the upperclassmen were excited about the freshmen on the team and that has carried over to this year. They are excited to come back next year, because they know our team is going to get better and better.
"That has really pushed a lot of kids to be more committed to swimming and put in more time. I also think the move to a new conference has helped us. I think some of the girls were intimidated last year by the new teams and how competitive it was, but this year, they were all excited and confident about it. That's only going to make the whole program better as the years go by.
"They got bitten by the bug, as I call it. They are having fun and seeing results and that's when kids become better."
THE MENTAL MINDSET
The biggest focus for Kelly this season has been in the mental aspect of swimming. He has preached mental toughness and blocking out negative thoughts in order to plant positivity in the minds of his young athletes.
"It's all mental for them, he said. "They've had some high and low points throughout the season, but it's been mostly due to how they mentally approach a meet. They performed well at the Spring Lake Invitational and then it dipped off a little bit after that. Then, they all came out and had a great night on Senior Night, and it was just kind of like, ‘where has this been all season'?
"The conference meet was another high point for us. The girls that were tapered swam well and even the girls that didn't taper swam above expectations, too. It's a really tough conference, and I think that really prepared us for what we are going to face this weekend.
"That competitive drive and confidence really helped their mental games, too. That is when I think everything seems to click for this group."
Kelly's squad tends to agree.
"The mental obstacles we have overcome this season have really made us all a lot better," said Kahler. "That's part of what coach has been telling us all season. He always says, ‘no negative thoughts', and I think that has been big for us. Whenever we don't bring a positive mindset to a meet, it usually doesn't go well for us."
The three times the team have brought that positive attitude to a meet — the Spring Lake Invitational on Sept. 15, their Senior Night home meet on Oct. 16 and the O-K Greater Grand Rapids Conference meet on Nov. 2 and 3 — the results have spoken for themselves.
"We kind of killed it at the conference meet," said sophomore Eliza Hulverson. "That was probably our best collective event of the season. Everyone was fired up."
"I think there was a sense of urgency at that meet, because we knew that was our last chance to make state cuts," added fellow sophomore Zoey Komar. "We had a lot of confidence after how well we swam that first day of the conference meet and that carried over into the second day."
The Senior Night win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central (105-80) also served as a turning point in the team's season.
"That was really the first time that we started swimming for something bigger than ourselves," said freshman Avery Flynn. "We wanted to win that for the seniors on the team and I think we all pushed ourselves a little harder for that win."
"Heading into the meet, coach told us that we were going to either win by two points or lose by two points, added Komar. "We ended up winning by more than 20 because we took that as a challenge and wanted it."
Now, the Lakers hope their positive attitudes and newly found confidence will serve them well as they prepare for their toughest test yet — the Division 3 state finals.
"I just want a few girls to place," said Kelly of his state-meet expectations. "I think they all deserve that, but I think if a few girls can make it to Saturday, they will get that feeling of accomplishment. I think Sara Mumby being a senior who has worked so hard over the years, definitely deserves that. She's got to put her best performance of the year out there in order to do it, but she's capable of it."
Mumby just hopes to leave her performance for last.
"I'm excited about my final meet," she said. "My goal is to place in my individual events and hopefully, push for some strong finishes on the relay teams, too. I just want to go out there and have fun. I think we all feel good about where we are at, and now, we want to go out there and compete."
Spring Lake State Qualifiers
200-yard Medley Relay
Louise Vega, Sara Strauss, Zoe Komar and Avery Flynn
200-yard Individual Medley
200-yard Freestyle Relay
Eliza Hulverson, Sara Strauss, Leila Kahler and Sara Mumby
400-yard Freestyle Relay
Sara Mumby, Sara Strauss, Leila Kahler and Eliza Hulverson