Ready or not, the swim season has officially tipped off.

This season, of course, won’t look anything like seasons of the past thanks to COVID-19 restrictions implemented throughout the state.

But there will still be plenty of intriguing storylines happening within each county and conference.

Here are 15 storylines to keep an eye on in 2021:

Who’s the No. 1 boys team in the state?

It’s been a long time since that question was this up for grabs with plenty of teams with a legitimate argument to be considered the state’s best team. Preseason, that distinction belongs to Cherry Hill East, which is coming off one of the most impressive campaigns from beginning to end, and deserves the benefit of the doubt with its ability to consistently churn out talent year after year. But Bridgewater-Raritan was a few touch outs away from beating it last season, and returns a lot of its top talent from that team, while Pingry is also overloaded with center lane swimmers. St. Augustine looks like it’s on the rise, Seton Hall Prep has been the talk of Non-Public A and CBA is always a threat at the top. It’s an exciting question with the unfortunate part being we probably won’t get a definitive answer with how this season is structured.

Who’s the No. 1 girls team in the state?

This question isn’t nearly as complicated as the boys side, with Bridgewater-Raritan once again loaded and a clearcut above the field with the biggest threat Cherry Hill East. The Cougars will have to replace some of its best swimmers from a year ago, but they showed in the Public A final win over the Panthers that they were more than a couple touches better than Bridgewater. While the two teams won’t get a chance to face off again this season, they each swim a loaded schedule with plenty of chances to prove why they should be considered the state’s best team.

Which boys swim conference is the best in NJ?

This is another question with a lot of contenders. The Cape-Atlantic League has two teams that are competing for the top ranking in St. Augustine and Egg Harbor, and have another pair of state title contenders in Mainland and Ocean City. The Skyland Conference has arguably the two best teams in the state in Bridgewater-Raritan and Pingry, plus plenty of other contenders like Montgomery, Hunterdon Central and Hillsborough. The SJSL has the current top-ranked team in Cherry Hill East, the defending Public C champ in Haddonfield, as well as strong programs in Shawnee, Cherokee and Moorestown.

Which girls swim conference is the best in NJ?

This answer is once again a bit more clearcut. The SJSL has the biggest argument with three defending state champions in Cherry Hill East, Moorestown and Haddonfield. Those three programs are all arguably top five programs too, and the conference has plenty of depth to boast past those programs. The Skyland Conference can compete in terms of depth. In addition to Bridgewater-Raritan, which has been the state’s best program for the better part of the last five years, there’s Hillsborough, Pingry, Mount St. Mary, Montgomery, Hunterdon Central and North Hunterdon. The Cape-Atlantic League has been on the rise with Mainland’s steep ascension, in addition to Ocean City and Egg Harbor. Then there’s also Union County Conference, which has its own fast-rising team in Summit, to go along with perennial powers in Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood.

What will virtual meets look like?

This might be one of the most intriguing questions of the season. Flat out, swimming is all about racing. What’s the atmosphere going to be like when there isn’t that competing swimmer in the lane next to you? How’s it going to feel when the meet resembles a practice? There won’t be a running score. Swimmers and coaches won’t know if they’re leading or behind until the end of the race, and there won’t be any lineup tweaks. It’ll just be so foreign from what meets have been in the past, it will be an interesting thing to take in.

How will times be affected?

In the same light, what will times look like this year? As can be expected, the best times come from the best meets. So while there should still be some big-time meets that could lead to some top times, there won’t be the county and conference championship meets, or even the state Meet of Champions for the best swimmers to go head to head and put together elite times. In the end, how much slower will this year’s best times be from last season? Will the top swimmers still end the season with the best times?

Boys & Girls Swimming: Shore Conference Championships

Arabella Lee of Colts Neck wins the 100 butterfly during the Shore Conference swimming championships at the Sonny Werblin Recreation Center at Rutgers University in Piscatawy, NJ on 1-30-20. Scott Faytok | For NJ Advance Media

Can Colts Neck’s center lane talent keep it at the top of the conference?

Colts Neck has been on a steady climb in the Shore Conference, and while it’s had some competitive rivalries in the past it seems to be in a class of its own now. A lot of that has to do with its envious depth of center lane talent, as Colts Neck can almost assure itself of at least a first-place finish in nearly every event, and can expect better in a few more events. Is that type of talent going to be enough to ensure Colts Neck another Shore Conference title, or will a team with the depth of a Middletown South finally end Colts Neck’s run?

Who will lead the Skyland Conference in boys swim?

The Skyland Conference isn’t the most wide open of all the conferences in the state, but it might have the most exciting battle. Bridgewater-Raritan and Pingry have had a storied rivalry in recent years, and that shouldn’t change this season. Both programs have a case to be considered the top team in the state, with the two teams featuring both a deep arsenal of center lane swimmers, as well as an enviable amount of depth. When the two meet head-to-head it will likely be the best meet of the season.

Which South Jersey defending state champion will prevail?

On the girls side the most exciting conference is the SJSL where there will be three defending state champions. Cherry Hill East, Moorestown and Haddonfield are all coming off championship seasons, and all enter this season with rosters that could be considered the state’s best. Even better, all three programs will face each other, so while we won’t have any state champions this season, there still will be plenty to swim for for these programs.

Can Summit girls take Union County?

Summit enters the season with the highest expectations the program has had in a while. The Hilltoppers shot up the rankings last season, exceeding their own lofty preseason expectations and came close to pulling off massive upsets in the state tournament. This season Summit brings back almost that entire roster, while adding a talented new class of swimmers to help finally take down Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the county.

NJSIAA State Sectional High School Swimming Semifinals

Montclair’s Ela Habjan pulls ahead against Passaic Tech in the girls 100 Backstroke at the NJSIAA State Sectional High School Swimming Semifinals at Passaic Tech in Wayne on Monday afternoon. 2/10/2020Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media

Can anyone compete with Montclair girls in the SEC?

Montclair has looked like a dominant program in the Super Essex Conference last season thanks to a roster that has two all-state candidates. Montclair won’t get a chance to show it’s made strides among the state hierarchy, but it will get a chance to continue its reign over Essex County with a top challenger yet to make its claim.

How will the big four boys swim teams in the Cape-Atlantic League matchup?

This is about as good of a year as you could hope for in the CAL for a season that’s staying local. Mainland and Ocean City were going to end up being one of the best sectional final matchups in the state, and while there won’t be a state tournament, the two programs will still get a chance to battle for supremacy. Those aren’t the only top-ranked programs in the conference either, with both Egg Harbor and St. Augustine looking to prove their worth as the state’s best. Egg Harbor returns several of the top swimmers from last year’s top-ranked team, and won’t have to play Cherry Hill East this year, while St. Augustine enters the year as arguably the would-be favorite in Non-Public A. But while neither will get to swim for a state title, a head-to-head meet will help build an impressive resume.

Can a team emerge in a deep Big North Conference?

The Big North Conference had one of its most competitive seasons in recent memory, with several teams vying for a spot in the state’s rankings. Bergen Catholic had an impressive year, with its season only ending in a two-point meet to St. Augustine. Northern Highlands and Ridgewood each had another strong season. Indian Hills continued its climb up in Public C. Demarest wasn’t its usual dominant self, but only saw its title defense end on a tiebreaker. Tenafly broke out in a big way last season, with its only loss of the season coming against eventual Public B champion Montgomery, and Passaic Tech had a strong year with its only regular season losses coming against top Non-Public A programs Seton Hall Prep and St. Peter’s Prep.

Girls Swimming: 2020 Meet of Champions

Chatham’s Sarah Barrett embraces Morristown’s Grace Miller after the 500 yard freestyle at the Meet of Champions at Gloucester County Institute of Technology on 3/1/20.Tom Horak | For NJ Advance Media

How will the Morristown-Chatham rivalry shake out?

Chatham and Scotch Plains-Fanwood have gotten most of the headlines in recent years because they’ve consistently met in the sectional final, and have had some of the more storied meetings of the past decade. Lost in that rivalry, though, has been the equal back-and-forth nature of the conference affair between Morristown and Chatham.

Both programs have regularly produced some of the state’s top swimmers, and have plenty of sectional and state titles to their ledger. Morristown held a two-year winning streak heading into last season before Chatham finally took back the upper hand, earning one of the more decisive wins between the two with a 94.5-75.5 decision. Chatham is expecting a bit of a dip this season after reaching the Public B final with a talented senior class lost to graduation, but Morristown has its own big shoes to fill with the loss of its own all-state swimmers.

Can anyone touch CBA in Non-Public A?

Christian Brothers Academy enters the season with one of the more impressive state title runs in swimming. CBA has won the Non-Public A title in 10 of the last 11 seasons, with the Colts the runner-up in that one season without a title. It’s not rare for a team to win that often in swimming, both Pingry and IHA are currently riding state record 13-year title streaks, but CBA has done it in one of the most competitive classifications in the state.

Non-Public A has regularly had five or more teams ranked in the Top 20, and usually a handful in the Top 10. While other classifications can boast similar talent at the top, like both boys and girls Public A, and girls Public B in recent years, none of those classifications has seen a team put together a similarly dominant streak. Still, all good things must come to an end and this season CBA looks like it might be vulnerable, while St. Augustine, Seton Hall Prep and St. Joseph (Met.) all look like they could take steps forward, with St. Peter’s Prep, Bergen Catholic and Notre Dame rounding things out.

There is no state tournament to decide things, but there will be enough head-to-head meets between these programs to give us a glimpse into whether any team would’ve come close.

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Evan Slavit may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSlavitHS. Like HS sports on Facebook.

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