It didn't take long.

In the second meet of her senior season, Cathy Howard pretty much ruined her chances of winning another "Unsung Heroine" award for the Cherry Hill West girls' swimming team.

Not that Howard, coach Scott Sweeten or the rest of the Lions were complaining.

"She's never really gotten the credit that she deserves," Cherry Hill West senior star Leigh Anne Patterson said of Howard, her teammate, classmate and friend. "This year, she's finally going to get recognized."

Quiet and consistent, steady but unspectacular, Howard won the Lions' "Unsung Heroine" award after her freshman season.

And her sophomore season.

And her junior season.

"I liked winning that award," Howard said. "It meant a lot to me. I was always happy to be able to be a part of the team but maybe a little bit off the side. I'm not the kind of person who likes the spotlight."

Too late. Howard served notice that her senior season likely will be something special by setting the school record in the 500 freestyle in the Lions' Dec. 13 meet against Washington Township.

Howard won the event in 5 minutes, 7.42 seconds, breaking the record set by former West star Allison Rolish.

"Her teammates were so happy for her," Sweeten said. "Cathy is one of the nicest, hardest-working kids we've ever had in this program. Her talents and efforts have often been lost and underappreciated because of the other great Lady Lion swimmers we have had over the last three years."

Howard, who has competed for Kingston Estates in summer swimming, as well as the Burlington County YMCA Hurricanes, said the 500 freestyle is her best event, as she is better in distance races than sprints.

She said she was swimming the event in around 5:30 as a freshman. She improved by around 10 seconds the next season, then cut her time by another five seconds or so last season.

Howard said when she covered the event in five minutes, three seconds for the Hurricanes the week before the start of the high school season, she knew she had a shot at the record.

"I was so exited to get it," Howard said of the record. "It's just a big deal to have one of the school records in this program. I've been following Cherry Hill West swimming for so long and for me to have a record, it just means a lot to me."

Howard has been a valuable contributor to the Lady Lions through her career. But the team also has featured such star swimmers as Rolish, Amanda Waldner, Maureen O'Neill and Patterson, who holds three team records and likely is on the verge of a spectacular senior season of her own.

Howard usually competes in the 500 and 200 freestyle, as well as the 400 freestyle relay and the 200 freestyle relay. That's 850 meters per meet, a heavy workload.

"I like being involved as much as possible," Howard said. "It's a team sport and we all try to help out the team in anyway that we can."

Howard is a top student. She ranks 25th in a class of 407, has a 3.6 grade-point average and scored 1950 on her SATs. She's looking at colleges such as John Hopkins, Delaware and Stevens Institute of Technology, and hopes to be a chemical engineer.

"I love chemistry and I love math," Howard said. "I want to do something where I can combine both."

For now, Howard is concentrating on making the most of her senior season. With a loaded freshman class joining the powerful program, the Lions could be in position in late February to challenge for sectional and state titles.

At Cherry Hill West's meet against Lenape yesterday, Howard's new status on the team was clear. In a vote of her teammates, Howard was chosen to wear a special cap during the competition.

It read "The Lioness."

It's not exactly "Unsung Heroine," but it has a nice ring to it, all the same.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia

at 856-779-3223

or panastasia@phillynews.com.