ATLANTIC CITY - "Fast" best describes the Atlantic City High School girls swim team.
But the word "tough" defined the No. 2 seed's 87-83 come-from-behind victory over Cape-Atlantic League rival Vineland, the No. 3 seed, in a South Jersey Public A semifinal Monday.
The Vikings will face top-seeded and defending champion Cherry Hill East for the sectional championship at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Gloucester County Institute of Technology.
The Vikings got contributions from their entire lineup, including Elvia Alvarez, Rachel Kessler, Katie Lund and Amber Glenn. That foursome earned a key third-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle relay in 4 minutes, 23.90 seconds to clinch the overall win. Vineland, which is ranked sixth in The Press Elite 11, led 79-77 going into the final race, and No. 1 Atlantic City needed to touch first and third to win the meet.
Abbey Gragg, a sophomore who was called up from the B relay, also gave the Vikings a boost in that race. She teamed with seniors Ayana Cox, Colleen Callahan and Melissa Toy to win in 4:10.88.
"When we went in down by two, I knew we could win the last relay. But if that's all we did, it would be a tie and go to power points, and we'd lose," Vikings coach Bill Howarth said. "I just made a little change and took (Gragg) from the B relay and put Amber Glenn in it."
"Alvarez, Kessler, Cox and Lund just swam backstroke and breaststroke and they didn't have but 10 minutes' rest before that," Howarth added. "I told them 'There is nothing we can do. Everyone is tired, but you have to give your anchors a chance to pull it out.' As much as Amber and Melissa swam fast at the end, they couldn't have done it without the other three girls."
Vineland opened the meet with a second or better finish in the first five events. Adrienne Ruberti, Rachel Bernhardt, Emma Hood and Courtney Middleton surprised some fans when they touched first in the 200 medley relay in 2:04.97. Middleton later took second in the IM (2:27.89) and Ruberti won the 50 freestyle (27.98).
Atlantic City didn't take its first overall lead until the 100 freestyle, when Middleton was disqualified due to a false start. Toy won the event, but Cox moved up to second place and Gragg to fourth to give the Vikings a 48-46 edge.
Atlantic City continued to stay ahead until the 100 breaststroke, when Bernhardt (1:13.28), Olivia Messore (1:21.40) and Juliana Merighi (1:26.04) took first, third and fourth, respectively, to go ahead 79-77.
"I had a feeling after the way we swam against Shawnee in the first round that both coaches would be jostling around their 400 free relays a little bit to try and pick up those last couple points," Vineland coach Mike Schneider said. "I'm very proud of our girls. They stood toe-to-toe with A.C. for 11 events and they didn't give it up. On paper we were outmatched in that last relay, and we made them fight it all the way down to the last 10 meters of that race."
"We really enjoyed the opportunity to race A.C. and we wish them luck on behalf of our conference."
Alvarez showed arguably the biggest fight of the day with third-place finishes in the 200 IM in 2:35.77 and the 100 backstroke in 1:12.16. She said she recorded personal bests in both events. She capped that performance by leading off the third place 400 freestyle relay.
On Thursday, Alvarez, Callahan, Cox, Toy and Dominique Voso will compete in their second S.J. Public A final, when the Vikings meet Cherry Hill East.
The Vikings won the first sectional final in program history in 2010 when those five swimmers were freshmen.
"We're tapering now and we just really needed to get past Vineland," said Alvarez, a 17-year old resident of the Chelsea Heights neighborhood in Atlantic City. "Thursday, we're all just going to go (for our) best times and go hard."
"Freshman year, I didn't know how big of a deal it was, but now coming back and being able to do it senior year, it feels so great," Toy added. "This has been our goal all year. We're all so happy we were able to do it."
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