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Mitchell comes of age

The Land O'Lakes girls team had Mitchell's number, having never lost to the Mustangs in that team's four previous seasons.

In fact, the Gators had not lost to anyone in the regular season since 1999.

That changed Sept. 16 with Mitchell's 94-86 win.

"That was probably one of the best days of my life," said Jillian McVeigh, a junior who this season set school records in the 50-yard freestyle (27.13 seconds) and 100 free (1:01.63). "They're our biggest competition right now."

Land O'Lakes coach Robin Hilgenberg seemed more relieved than disappointed about the streak's demise.

"When you're undefeated for so long, the pressure is always there to stay undefeated," Hilgenberg said. "Now there's no pressure. We can go about our season and handle it one meet at a time."

Mitchell coach Regina Drum felt confident her team could beat Land O'Lakes, citing her swimmers' strong efforts in practices and key swimmers who spent summers on club teams.

"Our bread and butter is that most of our girls swim year-round," Drum said.

McVeigh, junior Stephanie Long and the McCaffrey sisters, sophomore Meghan and freshman Caitlin, teamed up to win the 200 medley relay and 400 free relay in the Land O'Lakes meet. The McCaffreys and Long swim for Tampa Bay Aquatics, also coached by Drum, and McVeigh swims during the summer at the Trinity YMCA.

That foursome is a key reason the Mustangs are off to a 5-0 start and expected to challenge Land O'Lakes (4-1) and defending Sunshine Athletic Conference champion Gulf at this year's SAC meet (Oct. 15-16 at Gulf's New Port Richey pool).

"I told them, "My goal for you this year is to be undefeated; to be conference champion,' " Drum said. "I knew the potential they had. Not only those four girls but the team."

Mitchell's early success, Hilgenberg said, "is proof that summer swim clubs prepare you for the high school season. You have to swim in the summer to have a certain degree of competitiveness."

Drum, who coached the Ridgewood boys before replacing Lynne Worker as Mitchell's girls coach in the offseason, has increased her swimmers' workload in practices from 1 mile in two hours to 2 miles-plus in that span.

"I always knew (Mitchell) had good numbers (the roster has always listed 20-plus swimmers, including 27 this season)," Drum said. "But this year they're training a lot more than they did last year.

"I don't have that many years of swimming left, so I want to get as high as I can," said Long, who this season set a school mark in the 100 backstroke (1:15.09). "I believe we can win the conference meet. We're a good team."

Caitlin McCaffrey replaced 2004 graduate Brooke Frankenfield in the relays, and the foursome clicked from the outset.

"We're closer and Caitlin's a strong asset to our relay," said Meghan McCaffrey, who has set school records in the 100 butterfly (1:11.5), 200 free (2:17.33) and 200 IM (2:32.0).

Caitlin McCaffrey, who has the 100 breast stroke record (1:19.23), relishes being the newcomer of the foursome.

"They push me," she said of the others.

Winning the conference and going unbeaten in the regular season are goals Drum shares with her swimmers. But Caitlin McCaffrey has her sights set a bit higher.

"We have to make it to regionals," she said. "If not this year, then definitely next year."