H.S. swimming notebook: Under new senior leadership, Penn girls retool rather than rebuild

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Penn's Alyssa Messenger competes in the 200-yard medley relay during the sectional swimming prelims Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 at Riley High School.

SOUTH BEND —  After finishing its events in the Munster Relays, the Penn girls swim team lined the blocks of the pool as the Kingsmen boys hopped into the water for their competition. 

Each event, lap and yard that the Penn boys swam was met by screaming support from the girls team. At the forefront of the support was a group of seniors that had yet to find their voice within the program.

Until then. 

That moment, at the time, seemed miniscule. It was an early-season event in a season the Kingsmen expected a slight decline in talent. But that instance may have turned into a precursor for what this Penn girls swim season could turn into. 

“I was honestly proud because I never felt the energy like that before, like the amount of support they were giving and the amount of cheering they were giving," said senior Madison Bottorff, who was among those cheering. "It just made me happy that we were there for one another." 

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Penn came into the season with the challenge of replacing eight graduates from last year's team, many of whom went on to swim collegiately. But in absence has emerged a new group of senior leaders ready to guide the Kingsmen to another state meet appearance.

In hindsight, it should have been expected. At a program like Penn, the Kingsmen don't ever seem to rebuild. They just retool. 

"We are a lot closer than expected and everyone is just so supportive of one another," Bottorff said. "It is honestly our best year yet."

For the Kingsmen it starts with their three-headed monster in Bottorff, Alyssa Messenger and Ingrid Fretz. All three have signed National Letters of Intent to swim in college next season. Messenger is headed to Ball State, Fretz to Cincinnati and Bottorff to Missouri-Saint Louis. 

Heading into her senior year, Messenger has swam in three state meets with Penn, where she specializes in the 100 and 200-yard backstroke events. 

And those state meets are always uphill grinds. For example, Carmel High School, another strong program in Indiana, will normally have multiple fast and experienced swimmers competing in each event to elevate its score. 

The Greyhounds have won 36 team state championships and 35 straight dating back to 1987. Since the inception of the state meet in 1975, only Carmel, Lafayette Jefferson, Munster, Indianapolis Ben Davis, Columbus East and and Columbus North have won team titles. 

But through the first month of this year's swim season, Messenger sees the Kingsmen being able to make a dent at state with enough swimmers to compete for multiple top-three finishing spots in certain events.

"I think we all get along really well and we have a lot of depth compared to years past," Messenger said. "I remember my freshman and sophomore year, and even last year, we struggled a bit because we didn’t have a lot of depth, but this year I feel like we have more depth than we have ever had." 

Part of the depth meant bringing in swimmers such as Fretz into the program. 

Fretz spent her freshman and sophomore years at Northridge  another swimming powerhouse in the South Bend-area that had three swim/dive team members sign NLIs last month, too. She was also a state finalist in three events, including the 400-yard relay while competing with the Raiders. 

Penn senior swimmer Ingrid Fretz (COURTESY OF PENN HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETICS)

Last year, she decided to opt out of the high school swim season after switching club teams. 

Now refreshed, she recognizes her role as being a swimmer to take Penn to the next level. 

"The whole team is committed to this idea that we want to be the best that we can be this year," Fretz said. "I think coaching wise, who is on the team and just our overall attitude, we think we have a really good shot at having a dominant team and getting as far as we can."

In Borrtoff's Penn career, she has collected two All-American awards for the 200-freestyle relay and the 200-medley relay events.

Penn's talent is already being shown on the national stage, with Messenger, Fretz and Lily Christianson, who qualified for this year's Olympic Trials, competing at the Winter Junior Nationals, which features only the top-qualifying swimmers in the country, this past week in North Carolina. 

Locally, the Kingsmen are flexing their muscles in the Northern Indiana Conference, having won all of their meets so far this season. 

Part of that is the team's depth that other South Bend-area schools can't keep up with. But along with that is that inner competition between the three soon-to-be college swimmers, that not only elevates each other, but the rest of Penn's swimmers, too. 

"I think it’s super exciting because you have someone right next to you who wants the same things and they are going to end up pushing you through this process, but also support you," Fretz said. "It's really awesome because you know there is someone there that is going to hold you accountable to get you where you want to go and you can do the same things for them." 

Penn senior swimmer Madison Bottorff (COURTESY OF PENN HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETICS)

That accountability may have began at those Munster Relays, when Bottorff, Messenger, Fretz and others set a standard, not only for how Penn should compete in the water, but also conduct itself outside of the pool. 

The Kingsmen's results in the pool are certainly reflecting that. 

"Our team chemistry is so great and we all get along really well," Bottorff said. "I'm just proud of how everyone is doing and how hard they work outside and in the pool."