Dec. 16—WILLMAR — Finding the top swimmer in each event this winter won't be a problem for the Willmar boys swimming and diving team.
Finding and developing depth throughout the lineup will be the difference for the Cardinals as they open the season Thursday at St. Cloud Tech/Rocori.
"We're not as deep as we've been; our numbers are down," said Willmar head coach Carl Shuldes. "It's typically a problem, but more so this year. We're calling up a lot of kids to the varsity that haven't been there before. We're pretty inexperienced in the second and third spots."
While the Cardinals lost both their All-Central Lakes Conference swimmers in Ben Seelhammer and Ayden Schueler, the team brings back a quartet of state qualifiers: seniors Aidan O'Meara (200-yard medley relay); Ethan Hurley (200 medley relay, 200 freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay); and Colin O'Farrell (100 freestyle, 200 freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay); and junior Kale Bockelman (diving).
The Cardinals feature six seniors. Along with O'Meara, Hurley and O'Farrell, there's Luke Lammers, Ryan Pappenfus and Max Gatewood.
"It's always fun watching the new senior class grow into that leadership role," Shuldes said. "These guys have had great mentors to get them ready for this. They're picking it up in practices and making sure the younger kids are included in what's going on. They know what's expected and it makes my job as a coach much easier.
"They've been great as far as leadership and practice so far. We look to build off of them and the experience they have."
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O'Farrell, who placed ninth at state in the 100 freestyle at 48.33 seconds, is back in the 100 and 200 freestyles. Hurley will have the top spot in the butterfly. Lammers and O'Meara will handle the sprints. Gatewood is slated to compete in the top spot at the breaststroke while eighth-grader Soren Newberg will swim the 500 freestyle. Pappenfus can swim where he's needed, according to Shuldes.
O'Farrell and Hurley each won medals at state last season on the sixth-place 400 freestyle relay (3:16.82) and the seventh-place 200 free relay (1:30.06).
"We have a lot of question marks going in," said Shuldes, who also has two juniors, five sophomores, four freshmen, an eighth-grader and two seventh-graders on the varsity squad.
"We'll be able to have a solid swimmer in every event. It's mainly a matter of who's going to back them up."
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After placing 15th at state in diving (306.20), Bockelman will resume his duties on the board alongside sophomore Brendan Pappenfus.
"Kale's a good athlete," Shuldes said, "and we're hoping he'll be able to help in a couple relays as well."
Placing fifth in the Central Lakes Conference last season, the Cardinals are hoping to ascend closer to the top of the conference. Alexandria was the Class A state runner-up last season while Brainerd, Sartell and Sauk Rapids look to have strong squads once again.
But, getting near that group will take a lot of growing up quickly for Willmar's small squad.
"We talked about how they're going to be thrown to the wolves; it's literally sink or swim," Shuldes said.
"We're just excited to see where we're at tomorrow and continue to build off the success we had last season."