John Knebels
Sports Columnist

Ryan dethrones Wood, La Salle wins 22nd consecutive Catholic League championship

Bring your emotions to the block, and leave your heart in the pool.

That was the motto for the girls swim team at Archbishop Ryan High School this year. In a riveting display of grit, determination and flat-out athleticism last weekend, the Ragdolls made those words come alive.

On Feb. 20 at LaSalle University, Ryan captured the Catholic League championship. Several hours later, the Ragdolls came back to the same pool and seized the PIAA District 12 title and thus automatically qualified for the state tournament that commences in mid-March.

“This one is sweeter than most,” said Ryan coach Ed Macko. “We are such a young team. To be able to accomplish what we did was wonderful.”

Ryan’s triumph severed Archbishop Wood’s two-year reign as champs. For each of the previous six seasons, Ryan had finished on top.

But with 23 of their 25 swimmers contributing points, the Ragdolls managed to edge the defending champs 613-583.

“It came down to depth more than anything else,” said Macko. “A little here, a little there. Plus we had blocks of points scored in a few events, and they start to add up.”

Since the results had not been posted throughout the meet, no one knew for sure who was ahead. Then Archbishop Wood coach Charlie Stillwell found out that Ryan had amassed enough points to dethrone his squad, and he immediately came over and shook Macko’s hand.

“That’s when I knew we had won it,” said Macko. “Charlie was a class act.”

So, too, were Stillwell’s swimmers.

“I have nothing but praise for the Wood girls,” said Macko. “They all came over and congratulated us. That was a wonderful thing to do.”

Instead of telling his girls that they had won, Macko decided to let them sweat a little bit as the final results were being announced.

With arms linked together and heads bowed down as though in a state of prayer, the Ragdolls erupted when, following a dramatic pause after the announcement that Cardinal O’Hara had placed third, they discovered that favored Archbishop Wood had finished second.

“In all of my years of coaching, I can’t recall a more special moment,” said Macko. “The girls have a lot of respect for Archbishop Wood, and they were euphoric when they learned they had finished first. It was, as they say, priceless.”

Later that night in districts, Ryan and Wood found themselves in another tangle, and again, Ryan edged past its nemesis, winning the meet by only three points.

Among the standouts for Wood was freshman Katie Conallen, who won the 100-yard backstroke in the Catholic League meet, and both the 200 inspanidual medley and 100 backstroke in districts. Classmate Julianne Staskel grabbed gold in both 100 breaststroke events.

Winning by three points, Ryan obviously needed every point it could muster. In the final event, the 400 freestyle relay, the Ragdolls needed to finish at least third to clinch the district title. That’s precisely where they placed, with Archbishop Wood winning the event behind lead-off Taylor Kane, whose outstanding repertoire included a first-place finish in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle (by an almost ridiculous margin of 36.79 seconds), and the first leg of the victorious 200 freestyle relay.

Meanwhile, in the boys’ meets, La Salle imitated Ryan by taking both the Catholic League and District 12 titles. The Explorers’ 922 points suppressed a spirited effort by second-place St. Joseph’s Prep (611) and marked the 22nd consecutive season that the Explorers have won the CL title and second straight season they have taken districts.

Coach Frank Lichtner’s squad established a new Catholic League record in the 200 medley relay team behind Rhoads Worster, David Speese, Phil Letcavage and Andrew Sideras. Worster also set a school record in the 200 inspanidual medley in the Catholic meet; he broke it again in the district clash.

John Knebels can be reached at