DIXON – If there had been a state championship meet for girls swimming and diving, Laci Long would have been there.
The Dixon junior, diving for the Byron co-op, was the sectional champion in her home pool Oct. 24, scoring 364.25 points to beat a pair of Guilford divers for the title.
But there wasn’t a state meet this fall, with COVID-19 canceling that meet and so many other events.
Although the pandemic offered up new challenges to athletes in every sport, it did not take away from the co-op swimmers’ ability to bond as teammates, and that is what Long will remember most of all about the 2020 season.
“We didn’t get to see each other a lot because of COVID, and we had different practice times, but the team bonding was very strong,” she said. “Last year we took for granted getting to see each other every day, and this year we didn’t get to do that. Our team bonding was really strong, and every moment we had together we just had fun and missed each other so much.”
Long is the Sauk Valley Media 2020 girls swimming & diving athlete of the year after leading the Byron co-op to a sectional title, the Tigers’ second in a row.
The sectional title came at the end of a season that began with no certainty there even would be a sectional, and with a lot of the bigger meets erased from the calendar entirely.
“It’s been tough,” Byron diving coach Garry Cacciapaglia said. “We didn’t know exactly what was going on, if our season was even going to have a sectional. We knew there wasn’t going to be a state meet, so that was some tough motivating in the beginning of the season. She really kicked it into gear about halfway through. Not having a lot of 11-dive meets didn’t really help, but we did have a lot of six-dive meets.”
What opportunities she had, Long took full advantage of. At Sterling, she put up a 235.35, a school record. Soon after, she set the pool record at Byron.
All of that came after a summer in which Long didn’t have a club season because of the pandemic and had a lot of catching up to do in not a lot of time once the high school season kicked into high gear in the fall.
“The only practice I had was high school,” she said. “There was a lot of strength training. I had a personal trainer and I just worked out with him since I couldn’t get in the pool as much. We just had to work on dry land.”
That strength training helped her with the board work and with entries. She was able to add a couple of new skills, but mostly just honed what she already had down due to the shortened season, she said.
“We were just really working on perfecting my skills so that I would have a great lift,” she said.
Cacciapaglia thinks that, with just a few more weeks in the season, Long would have been able to turn things up even more. In Long, he sees a diver who throws herself into her work in practice.
“Any time that we’re at practice, if she doesn’t get a dive just right, she doesn’t want to move on,” Cacciapaglia said. “She wants to keep doing it, keep doing it until she gets it right. Sometimes I’ve got to convince her we’ve got other dives to do before she gets too tired.”
Long was a gymnast at one point. But her mom knew the coach of the Sterling Swim and Dive Club, and signed her up as a diver when she was in seventh grade.
“It kind of ties into gymnastics, they kind of relate to each other,” Long said. “At first I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ but I went and it was really fun. It’s been a great ride.”
At the sectional meet her freshman year, she took third in diving, scoring 376.60 points to trail only a pair of seniors: Hononegah’s Abigail Hellinga and Sterling’s Zaina Rumbolz.
“That’s when I kind of realized I could make state the next year,” she said.
She was right. At the 2019 sectional meet at Rockford Jefferson, her 419.55 earned her a trip to state at New Trier High School in Winnetka.
Her sophomore year also was her first working with Cacciapaglia.
“When I first saw her, I knew she had tons of potential,” he said. “She dove very well her freshman year, didn’t make state, but she made quite an impact as a freshman. During that off season, she joined a club in Chicago and really, that’s what helped hone her skills, so coming into last year, she was really on pace to learn a lot of new dives. Last year, she really had tremendous growth, so that was really enjoyable to watch her grow as a diver.”
It also allowed Long a chance to hone what would become her biggest weapon: a reverse dive pike, in which she rotates her body midair back toward the board while bent at the waist, legs straight out.
“She really can stand that up and drop it in really nice,” Cacciapaglia said. “I know at sectional she had a great top, great pike, and then her legs came out just a bit and she just missed it. It wasn’t terrible, but I know it disappointed her. But that dive, four out of five times she’s hitting it for 7s or 8s. It’s really her go-to dive.”
Long is talking to a couple of college coaches, and could have her future plans squared away soon.
In the meantime, she wants to work on a lot of things, from balance to core work to technique, she said
“It brings a lot of tightness, sharpness, clean entries, and a lot of height to the dive,” she said.