LAKE FOREST — The deck surrounding the pool at Lake Forest High School has sections for each girls swim and dive team to congregate between races.
At Saturday’s Lake County Invitational, the Vernon Hills section was as crowded as it’s ever been.
“We have more than 50 swimmers in the entire program,” Cougars coach Kedric Greenawalt said. “I don’t see our numbers dropping.”
According to Vernon Hills’ website, its 2014-’15 enrollment is 1,316 students. Greenawalt said the fact the Cougars have more than 50 female swimmers in a school of modest size is an indication the program is gaining traction with traditional swimming powerhouses.
“The top schools in enrollment compare with the top 10 or 15 teams. They are very close parallels,” Greenawalt said. “The bigger schools are getting kids out. [The numbers] tell me we are doing something right.”
In light of recent conference reshuffling, a bump in participation is noteworthy. This summer, members of the Prairie Division of the North Suburban Conference — of which Vernon Hills is a member — announced they were leaving the NSC to form a new still-unnamed conference in time for the 2016-’17 school year. Vernon Hills remains a member of the NSC but has not committed to its participation beyond the 2015-16 school year.
If Vernon Hills remains in the NSC, it will compete head-to-head with Lake Forest, Libertyville, Mundelein and Warren more regularly. All are schools with larger enrollments, deep traditions and strong feeder organizations.
“It can be frustrating. You are getting steamrolled a bit,” Greenawalt said. “The bigger schools are getting kids out and those communities typically have larger club teams that feed into the school.”
Greenawalt said 15 Vernon Hills varsity swimmers also participate in club swimming, which is another positive trend for the program.
Senior Summer Hemesath agreed with her coach that the program is trending upward.
“I think my freshman year there were a few girls that were year-round swimmers and the others were doing it as a high school activity,” said Hemesath, a four-year varsity participant who swims with CATS Aquatic during the club season. “Over four years it’s gotten more depth. More varsity [girls] swim out of high school and sincerely care about the sport.”
Hemesath’s sixth-place time of 5 minutes, 28.77 seconds in the 500-yard freestyle was one of the Cougars’ best individual finishes Saturday. Lisa Cheng, a senior, is establishing herself as one of the area’s best sprinters. She had top-three finishes in the 50 free (third, 24.98) and 100 free (second, 53.72), providing many of the points that earned the Cougars a seventh-place team finish.
Lilly Hemesath, Summer’s sister, was fifth-best in the 100 breast (1:10.72) and swam the breaststroke leg of the Cougars’ sixth-place 200 medley relay team.
A sophomore, Lilly Hemesath should be around the next two seasons. And while she said her and teammates try and compete with blue bloods like Lake Forest, Mundelein and Stevenson, a change in conference affiliation would be a boost to the program.
“I think it would help us if we were in a different conference,” Lilly Hemesath said. “At conference [meets] we’d be a lot higher. We’d place [better] at sectionals and that would help our confidence.”