The title bout came right down to the final race.

A fierce battleamong Bel Air, C. Milton Wright and John Carroll for the county swimming championship didn't end until the final swimmer touched the wall.

In that race, the boys 400-yard freestyle relay, C. Milton Wrightteams finished first and third. Bel Air took second, and that was good enough to hand the Bobcats their second straight Harford County Swimming and Diving Championship on Feb. 14.

Only 14 points separated the top three teams at the close of the 13th annual event at the Magnolia Middle School pool.

Bel Air won with 507, C. Milton Wright placed second with 500 and John Carroll third with 493.

Until the final results were announced, Bel Air head coach Janus Shimp wasn't sure her young team could manage a second title.

"It wasn't supposed to be our year," said Shimp, whose team posted victories in 14 of 24 events. "We graduated 11 seniors and lost two more this year. Coming in we weren't supposed to beat John Carroll and C. Milton Wright. These kids just worked really well together and pulled it off."

Some other highlights of the meet:

* Pot of gold: Only one swimmer went home with four gold medals around her neck, Bel Air sophomore JennMurach. She set a school record, 55.07, in the 100 free, but she missed the one mark most important to her.

Murach had hoped to meet the qualifying time in the 50 free for the U.S. Swimming Junior National Championships next month. She needed a 24.59 or better finish. Despite her gold medal, Murach was off the qualifying pace, finishing in25.20 seconds.

* Three's a crowd: Bel Air also had four triple gold medalists: juniors Rob Flynn and Kevin Murach and freshmen Kathy Rising and Dominique Cosco.

* Deep depth: C. Milton Wright finishedsecond despite winning only four events. Amy Landis (100 back) and Peter Maranto (diving) won the only individual gold medals for the Mustangs, but the Mustangs' depth, especially in the relays, helped thempile up the points.

"We had a couple of events where we didn't have anybody (in the finals), and that really pulled us down. The relays at the end, that really pulled us up," said first-year head coach Annie Lee, daughter of veteran Edgewood Aquanauts coach Fred Lee.

*Split time: John Carroll coach Al Herlinger split his top four girlsfreestylers between two 400 relay teams to try to pick up extra points. "I knew it would have been a waste to put the four together, because nobody could come close to them, so I decided to split them up and try to get a better finish out of the second team."

Herlinger left Liz Harris and Carrie Dannenfelser on the A team and added Mollie Brumfield and Marianne Traskey. He moved Joanne Sonberg and Michelle Kistner to the B team with Michelle McCarthy and Colleen Kistner. Thestrategy worked.

The Patriots' B team won the race. The A team was second, but Harris made up half a lap on the anchor leg to out-touch C. Milton Wright.

* Fantastic freshmen: Four ninth-graders won individual gold medals: Bel Air's Dominique Cosco and Kathy Rising, C.Milton Wright's Amy Landis and Edgewood's Sherwin Sapasap. Underclassmen won 23 of the 54 individual medals awarded.

* Oh so close: Nocounty records fell in the finals, but Edgewood's Sherwin Sapasap came close. In the 100-yard breast stroke, he missed the record by .43 seconds. Bel Air's Kevin Murach holds onto the record of 1:03.45 thathe set earlier this year.

An expected race between Sapasap, Murach and C. Milton Wright's Ryan Stallings might have pushed the winner to a new record, but the showdown never happened. Murach, who was disqualified in the event in last year's county finals, and Stallings swam other events instead.

* Singular sensations: North Harford and Havre de Grace had one individual gold medalist each. Carli Blische, who owns five North Harford pool records, took bronze medals in the 100 back and 100 fly. She picked up two more bronze medals in the relays.

Lisa Flick took third in diving for the Warriors. She moved upin the finals after falling behind freshman teammate Lindsay Shellenberger in the preliminaries.

* Two for the money: Fallston finished a surprising fourth in the team competition with only two medalists. Courtney Fyhr took the silver in the 200 free, and Eric Grepps bronze in the 100 back.

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