LONGMONT -- The members of the Niwot girls swim team hesitate to declare the Cougars loaded this year, and with understandable reasons.

While Niwot placed 12th at the Class 4A state meet last year, the Cougars did not exactly crowd the medal podium during the awards ceremonies. Niwot reached the finals in only one event, the 200 freestyle relay, and enjoyed only three other entrants in the consolation finals.

Nevertheless, optimism abounds amid the Cougars' program. Niwot returns just about everyone from that 12th-place team from last season, and the Cougars are harboring legitimate aspirations of cracking the top 10, or perhaps even better, this season.

"That's definitely our goal, and we're working really hard in preseason and gearing it up," junior Hannah Driscoll said. "I think we'll do really well as a team this year. It's nice having such a strong team going into it. We have a lot of depth this year and the relays I think are going to be extraordinary."

Niwot returns all four swimmers who recorded the team's sixth-place finish in the 200 freestyle relay, including Driscoll, Kylie Pillard, Zoie Jordan, and cross country standout Elise Cranny. That same quartet nearly reached the final of the 400 freestyle relay, ultimately finishing ninth, and Niwot should be strong in both events again this year.

While the Cougars qualified for state in the medley relay, they did not contend for a second-day appearance, finishing 25th in the preliminary heats. Niwot coach Sarah Heller believes her team has more than the necessary depth to compete for finals slots in all three relay events this season.

"In terms of state, we finished 12th last year and we'd like to sneak back into that top 10," Heller said. "We have a lot of high hopes for our relays, and I think we'll have some higher individual places this year at state. A couple years ago we had all three (relays) go top-eight, and I'd love to get back to having all three in the top eight.

"Placing in that top eight is hard, but we have a couple girls who do all the strokes. We're hoping that the medley relay, which is our weakest one, can sneak in there."

Niwot will be strong in the freestyle sprint events, thanks in large part to that same quartet that competed at state in the freestyle relay events. All four of those swimmers qualified for state in both the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle. Driscoll turned in the best individual finish by placing 10th in the 50 free, though Pillard was right on her heels with a 16th-place showing in the 50 as well.

"We definitely have a young team, and it's nice to have a lot of girls from last year returning this year," Pillard said. "We work well together. We just have to get back to where we were last year. Usually I've done a lot of distance, but this year I think I'm going to focus more on the 50 and the 100."

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