Verona Area/Mount Horeb qualified for the Division 1 state meet in all but one event, as the Wildcats finished fifth in the 14-team Beloit Memorial Sectional with 256.5 points Saturday, Nov. 9, in Beloit.

“It shows we put in a lot of training and effort and we worked hard pushing to get to state,” Verona senior Sara Stewart said. “It’s the end goal for all of us.”

Stewart will be busy Saturday, Nov. 16, at the University of Wisconsin Natatorium. The Illinois State commit qualified for state in four events.

Stewart set a season-best time in the backstroke, finishing second in 56.51 seconds.

“I was really shocked and happy about it,” she said. “It makes me really excited to see all of my hard work and my teammates’ hard work pay off.”

Stewart also placed third in the 100 freestyle (52.68), and teamed with classmates Sam Malecki and Josie McCartney and sophomore Kenzie Zuehl in the fourth-place 200 medley relay (1:47.97).

Stewart, McCartney, freshman Peyton Drexler and sophomore Tola Klabough finished sixth in the 400 free relay (3:35.53), but the quartet’s season-best time was fast enough to make state.

“She wants to go out swimming her best,” VA/MH coach Bill Wuerger said of Stewart. “She’s a big meet swimmer that has stepped up in the past, and she did that again.”

Drexler also qualified for state in two individual events. She broke her previous lifetime-best time in the 500 free by 2.2 seconds (5:07.12), finishing second in the race. She also qualified in the 200 free (1:55.85) despite finishing fifth.

“I wanted to do the best I could and improve my time,” Drexler said. “It makes me really excited to see that I could do that (qualify for state), to see how far I have come and how I have that opportunity as a freshman.”

McCartney added a sixth-place finish in the 100 butterfly (57.58), a season-best time by 2.3 seconds, to qualify for state. Junior Bailey Felsheim also qualified in the event despite a ninth-place finish (58.67).

Malecki, Kenzie Zuehl, senior Kaitlyn Zuehl and sophomore Maia Blas earned a state berth with a fifth-place finish in the 200 free relay (1:39.55). Malecki qualified in the 200 individual medley despite an eighth-place finish (2:10.86).

“Our goal was to relax, have fun and swim the best we could,” Wuerger said. “There are a lot of fast swimmers in the state. We can’t really control whether we make it to state. We can just swim the best we can and hope it’s good enough.”

Malecki took sixth in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:08.02, but did not qualify for state in the event. Kaitlyn Zuehl was seventh (1:08.72).

Felsheim took eighth in the 100 backstroke (59.52), shaving three seconds off her previous lifetime-best time. Klabough placed 10th in the 200 free (1:58.09) and 11th in the 100 free (54.04).

Kenzie Zuehl finished 10th in the 50 free (24.58) and 12th in the 100 free (54.22). Blas took 11th (24.96) and Kaitlyn Zuehl placed 13th (25.00) in the 50 free. Blas added a 15th-place finish in the 100 free (54.78). McCartney finished 14th in the 500 free (5:21.78).

Sun Prairie captured the sectional title with 377.5 points.

State preview

Despite a later start to competitive swimming, Drexler is at home in the distance events. She is one of the Wildcats’ best chances of earning a medal at the Division 1 state meet.

Drexler enters the state meet tied with Madison West sophomore Quinn Weygandt as the seventh seed in the 500 free.

“I just love the adrenaline rush when I swim it,” she said of the 500 free.

Drexler, 14, swims the 1,000- and 1,600-yard freestyle with the Madison Aquatic Club in the summer. Wuerger believes the Mount Horeb freshman has the physical talent and work ethic to become an elite distance swimmer.

“She has a good motor that keeps on going,” he said. “She can keep up a fast tempo over a 5-minute period of time. She has worked hard and we are happy to have her.

“When we do longer sets in practice, she embraces those sets and she enjoys them. That is the mindset you need to have as a distance swimmer.”

Waukesha South/Mukwonago junior Abby Carlson, the state runner-up in the 500 free last year, is the top seed and favorite to win the event with a sectional time of 4:55.87. She is the only qualifier with a time under five minutes.

“My goal is to definitely be under a 5:05,” Drexler said. “I just want to focus on myself to improve my best time.”

Stewart is seeded seventh in the 100 freestyle and eighth in the 100 backstroke. Brookfield East junior Reilly Tiltmann posted the fastest sectional time (5:34.40) and is seeking a second straight championship in the backstroke.

The Wildcats’ 200 medley relay team is seeded 12th, with three-fourths of the defending state championship team back in Stewart, McCartney and Kenzie Zuehl.

VA/MH’s 200 free relay and 400 free relay are also both seeded 12th. Middleton is seeking a fourth straight gold in the 200 free relay and enters the state meet with the fastest sectional time (1:36.20). Sun Prairie won the 400 free relay title last year and enters the state meet with the top time (3:27.73).

“It will be sad saying goodbye to everybody,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, it would be a good ending to the season so it will be a good thing to remember.”