AUGUSTA — The Cony High School girls swimming team reached the pinnacle last season. Even before the season began, coach Jon Millett knew getting back wouldn’t be a breeze.

“The hardest thing to do is defend a title,” he said. “The expectations are very high.”

It’s not easy. The Rams just make it look that way. Championship season is looming, with the Kennebec Valley Athletic Championships up in two weeks and the state meet slated a week later, and the Cony girls look as daunting as they did on their way to a Class A title last year — if not more so.

“I think we’re doing better this year than last year,” said junior Talia Jorgensen, the defending state champion in the 100-meter freestyle. “We just have a lot more middle swimmers that carry the team along … swimmers that started their freshman years, now they’re in their junior years and they’ve improved a lot.”

There are also hopes on the boys side for banner days in the coming meets from Nathaniel Berry, the 50 freestyle runner-up at states last year, and Ethan Overlock, who was third in the 200 and 500 freestyle at last year’s KVACs.

“Definitely, I feel like we’ve improved,” Overlock said. “I feel like there are more swimmers in general, and that has added to the overall effect of how the team is comprised.”

“I’m hoping we can score pretty high at KVACs and states,” Berry said. “It helps a lot having a lot of different swimmers with different capabilities. We can put together some really diverse relays.”

Championship hopes are with the girls, however, and it’s easy to look at the Rams and assume the story is the same. The ending might very well be; Cony has won all six meets this season, and its toughest challenge was a 38-point whipping of Morse in the Morse Invitational. But those involved, from the swimmers to Millett on the pool deck, say there are some key differences between this year’s team and last year’s squad.

One is pressure. With no state championships in its history, Cony snuck up on the Class A field en route to the state title last season. This year, the Rams know the spotlight is on them.

“We definitely have a lot more pressure on us because we want to have a repeat of last year,” said sophomore Cecilia Guadalupi, the defending state champion in the 100-meter breaststroke and 200 IM. “Last year we were kind of the underdogs … but now it’s like we have something to defend. So we’ve all been keeping that in mind.”

Another difference is the ability to handle that spotlight.

“The biggest benefit is, I think, the confidence that we have in ourselves,” said junior Gabby Low, a runner-up in the 100 butterfly and backstroke at states last year. “Last year going into states we were shaky and nervous, we were like ‘Can we do this? Can we actually do this?’ This year, we’re thinking ‘Oh, we did this once before, there’s nothing stopping us from doing this again.’ “

The third difference was perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the team this season. Cony bid adieu to core members of their championship team in Anne Guadalupi, who won the 500 freestyle title last year and was the Rams’ best distance swimmer, and Molly Silsby, a valuable sprint freestyler and breaststroker. But the Rams had answers coming in freshman twins Tessa and Amanda Jorgensen — Talia’s sisters — who have provided Cony with scoring punch in the backstroke and sprint freestyle events, respectively.

“They’ve been great teammates,” Millett said. “Team chemistry has been good this year, and we’re focused on our end goal, our common goal together.”

That part is the same as last year. It can be normal for teams after winning championships to lose some of the hunger, drive and edge that put them on top to begin with. At Cony, however, Millett said his team has been as focused on adding to the trophy haul as it was to starting one in the first place.

“These girls have kind of been all business in the water this year,” he said. “They’ve been pretty focused as a whole. Sometimes you have to get on kids about staying focused and keeping the end goal in sight, and I really haven’t had to do that a lot.”

There is some fresh motivation. Cony didn’t win the KVAC last year, losing to Brunswick by 10 points. But the Rams, as was the case last year, have their sights set on the week after.

“The states are the big thing that we’re shooting for,” Low said.

“Our focus is the state meet,” Millett said. “It would be nice to win KVACs, but we would rather have the big title than the little title.”

Cony has been proceeding accordingly. While many teams ease their work load — called “tapering” — in advance of the KVACs, Cony will keep up the pace, hoping to instead hit its stride at the state meet, where powerhouse Scarborough and squads like Falmouth, South Portland and Kennebunk await and will be ready to challenge for Cony’s crown.

“We are swimming right through,” Millett said. “Our peak is going to be the state meet.”

And if that goes the way last year’s did?

“It would feel amazing,” Low said. “After (we won), people started thinking ‘Swimming’s a big deal, and Cony’s good at it.’ … Right now there’s just one state title banner, and it would feel so good if there were two.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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