mnorlander@bcnnew.com

WILTON -- Lulu Belak touched the wall, giving the Rams' 400 freestyle relay team a time of 3:44.08 and its first victory over Wilton in 10 years.

Teammate Livi Kroll gave Rams head coach Dave Fine and assistant Kat Munson huge bear hugs when the score went final: New Canaan 95, Wilton 91.

The foursome -- Belak, Kroll, Allie Skaperdas and Cara Egan -- battled with Wilton's A squad, but once Egan gave the Rams the lead during the 100-200-yard stretch, the Rams never gave back their position.

The 400 freestyle relay is the final race in every FCIAC swimming event. It is considered the toughest, too, because it drains a swimmer of all they have left. Going into the 400 free last Friday at the Wilton YMCA, New Canaan trailed the Warriors, 87-86. It was very much understood that second place in the race would mean second place at the meet.

And second place is a loss.

"We've talked about this a lot," Fine said. "The 400 free relay is a battle and it comes down to heart. You swam three races before it, everybody's tired. We really had a hard time stepping up with that relay [in the past]. In these meets, I'm trying to teach them to step up, because in states it's going to come down to something like that."

For Belak, anxiety acts as flippers, and all the pressure on her to give New Canaan the win was only a catalyst to push faster.

"It's definitely really nerve-wracking," she said. "Everyone's expecting you to do well. It's a lot of pressure, but I just really love it. It helps me swim faster when I'm under pressure."

As for Kroll's uncontrollable celebration, she talked about it afterward.

"I knew that we had done something great and it wasn't because we had just won that relay," Kroll said. "It was because of the love for the sport and the fact that we worked as a team to do what we did was the greatest team effort."

New Canaan had struggled against Wilton for so long -- despite having a solid program -- because Wilton tends to have specialized swimmers for so many events. On Friday, New Canaan could look to two events that broke its decade-long losing streak: that 400 free relay and the 100 backstroke, which the Rams swept.

Adelyn Graf's 1:02.16, Kroll's 1:03.42 and Emma Tobey's 1:05.19 took first, second and third place, respectively.

Fine said Tobey and Taylor Dunstan (third in the 100 breast) were "big difference-makers."

Graf, who is a Wilton resident (she has a parent who teaches at New Canaan High, thus why she swims with the Rams), admitted winning was a little bittersweet because she knew all the girls she was going up against.

"Usually having people [swim] next to me really gets me down, but it was Wilton!" Graf said. "After the first event we were really close and I think that really pushed us."

Belak added, "We did exceptionally well in the backstroke. That just set the tone. Because of that, it just made us so more excited for the race and we said, `We can win this.' The positive thinking [from sweeping the backstroke] helped us win today."

Sweeping in the backstroke was something Fine seldom sees from his team.

"It's absolutely uncommon," he said. "Again, in my coaching, we've never really had a good 100 back. I didn't expect a 1-2-3 finish -- maybe a 2-3-5 -- because Adelyn was coming out of the 500 [freestyle]. We tested that the other day to see if she could do that, and she could. She went two seconds faster than she's been all season."

Many demons were exorcized and the collective ceiling of this Rams team seems to have been raised.

Last year, against Staples, the Rams went into the final relay losing by two points, but they failed to overcome the Wreckers. That was still fresh in the mind of Fine, who was beaming after his team finally overcame a final-race deficit.

"Honestly, that's the best 400 free relay in my entire career of coaching," Fine said. "I've never had a relay, in a dual meet, go 3:44."

Other highlights from the meet were the 200 medley relay team (Graf, Belak, Skaperdas, Maddie Rusch), which went 1:52.86, the second-best time under Fine's tutelage and just .04 behind Wilton's first-place team; Egan won the 200 freestyle (2:00.49), giving the Rams early points they would certainly need later on; and the 50 freestyle, which Belak won in 24.53, and was followed by Maddie Rusch's 25.08 second-place finish.

"When you talk about a meet like this, you have to come in here, do what you can and swim your best times," Fine said. "This meet could've went either way. It came down to hundredths of a second."

Rusch finished the 100 butterfly in first place by less than a second, winning with a time of 1:01.50. Skaperdas wasn't far off, touching the wall in 1:02.10 -- good for third in the race.

Additionally, Kroll, who had a bum knee for the first couple weeks -- she didn't swim against Darien and was minimal against St. Joe's -- was used on a full-time basis. It was clearly the right decision and critical for the Rams, who go up against Staples at home Friday at 3 p.m.

"For them to do that today," said Fine, "for me, I've been teaching them and trying to get them to do that, and for them to do that it was a relief and a success at the same time."