NEW CANAAN - For three New Canaan seniors, Monday afternoon represented one of the high points of fantastic high school athletic careers as well as the transition to the life of a Division-I college athlete.
Flanked by their parents and coaches, the New Canaan trio of Maddie Rusch, Liz O'Sullivan and Wheatley Raabe met in the school's gymnasium to make it official, as all three signed their Letters of Intent to compete in Division-I athletics.
Rusch, the state record holder in the 50 freestyle and New Canaan High School record holder in the 100 butterfly will trade her red and black for blue and white while continuing her swimming career at Duke next fall.
"I think it's a really good balance of academics and athletics for me. I can get the best academics that I can possibly handle and the best swimming that I can possibly do, and I can be a big contributor to the Duke team, so that's a plus as well," Rusch said. "I don't know if it's going to happen my freshman year, but I want to make NCAA's, and their cuts are like harder than Olympic Trial cuts. Hopefully with the new kind of training I have with my college coaches, I will achieve that at some point in my college career."
O'Sullivan, New Canaan's standout lacrosse goalie, will don the Notre Dame gold and blue next fall. According to O'Sullivan, it wasn't always a slam dunk that she would end up at Notre Dame.
"I was actually committed to Stanford for a year. About a week before we were signing these Letter of Intents, I decided to change my commitment to Notre Dame. I have so much family tradition at ND and I couldn't really get it out of my head," O'Sullivan said. "We have the Notre Dame flags all over the house, and I really think this is going to work out for the best."
Wheatley, a key defender in the New Canaan lacrosse team's recent run of success, will attend the University of California Berkeley, despite not initially knowing for sure if she wanted to continue to play lacrosse at the next level. Several California Berkeley coaches attended one of Wheatley's games, but she wasn't convinced they were there to see her.
"For a long time, I was actually struggling with the thought of maybe not even playing lacrosse in college. My last recruiting tournament, the coaches were at one of my games and I was like `Oh, they're not here for me,'" Raabe said. "A few days later they emailed me, so Berkeley definitely found me. I didn't think I was good enough, but knowing that there's a school out there that wants you and thinks you're good enough was definitely a huge confidence booster and it makes you rethink everything that you've always told yourself."
Rusch, who is a former swimming teammate of older sisters Tory and Ali and current teammate of younger sister Olivia, indicated that she will likely continue to swim relays, as well as three other strokes.
"Here, because it's not as competitive, I can swim anything and be OK with it," Rusch said. "At Duke, I'll probably swim 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly and then the relays."
According to New Canaan swimming coach David Fine, Rusch's presence in the lineup often made her teammates that much better, and the veteran swim coach is sure to miss one of his senior leaders next season.
"You see the hard work that she's put in, you see the dedication that she's put it and you see it pay off for her to be in the position that she's in. To be a part of what she's accomplished is nice for me. She started to really break out at 10, 11 and 12 (years old), and I as the high school coach was waiting until she got here," Fine said. "When she came in as a freshman, she was a premier swimmer in the state. From freshman year she's been a big part of our lineup and she's a big leader on our team today."
Fine went on to say that Rusch had a huge hand helping the Rams win the two FCIAC titles.
"She's a staple on our relays, and it takes pressure off the other girls. She's been a huge part of the (FCIAC titles)," Fine said. "Last year, she won two events and the year before she won two events. She's been a leader in the water and the effort she puts in and the things that she shows in the water and at practice is a lead by example situation. She is a killer relay swimmer."
Although they're both penciled in as Division-I athletes, both O'Sullivan and Wheatley have their senior years to play, and both sound intent on making it a season to remember.
"We've won state championships twice here, but we haven't had the opportunity to get an FCIAC championship yet, so that's the last thing we want to do," O'Sullivan said.
"We definitely want to win FCIACs and another state championship," Raabe said.
New Canaan field hockey coach Erin Gildea indicated that she was well-aware of talent O'Sullivan and Wheatley possessed when they were just freshman and that the duo played huge roles in helping New Canaan win a pair of Class M state championships in 2011-12 and 2009-10.
"I think Liz and Wheatley are great fits and Notre Dame and Cal Berkeley. They've worked hard over the last four years and before even getting to the high school. Both of them are very strong defensive players for us, and they're going to be very hard to replace next year," New Canaan girls lacrosse coach Erin Gildea said. "They both made varsity as freshmen, and I knew they had a lot of potential. This senior class has a lot of kids that are great athletes and they've really come together and played as a team."
All three future Division-I athletes are excited to compete at the next level, but that isn't to say that the New Canaan community will be easy for the three seniors to leave behind.
"I'll definitely miss the people. To go outside every day for two hours and play the game that you've worked so hard for and to do it with people that you love was the most incredible atmosphere," said O'Sullivan, who is planning on majoring in business.
"We have a great support system here and lots of school spirit and it's so heart-warming when you see your friends and family and people in the stands at your games. Knowing these people you grew up with, they care about you and they want to support you and it's really comforting," said Raabe, who is planning on majoring in psychology.
"(The best moment on the New Canaan swim team was) either winning FCIACs or every time we beat Darien," Rusch said. "It's kind of nice to kind of leave my own mark here I guess. It feels good," said Rusch, who is interested in majoring in English.
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