Mar. 12—WILLMAR — The Willmar boys swimming and diving team produced seven state qualifiers for the second year in a row last season.
With his team hosting the Section 3A meet this weekend, how does Cardinals head coach Carl Shuldes feel about getting seven to state for a third consecutive season?
"It sure would be nice to get seven down there again this year, and it's a possibility," Shuldes said.
Willmar is one of area three teams participating in the Section 3A championships, which is split into three sessions.
The diving portion of the meet kicks off the competition at 5 p.m. Friday from Willmar High School. Divers from all seven section schools will be allowed to perform. Then, due to COVID protocols, the swimming portion of the meet is broken into two parts on Saturday.
St. Cloud Apollo, Montevideo, Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield begin that day's activities at noon. Then, Willmar, along with Monticello, Princeton and Hutchinson, the defending section champion, compete in the next pod.
The Tigers are favored to repeat after earning the top seed times in 7 of 11 swimming events.
Swimmers and divers qualify for state by either capturing a top-three finish or reaching the state-qualifying mark in their respective event.
The state swimming and diving championships will have a similar format to sections, with diving competition split by classification and beginning on Thursday. Class AA swimming gets underway Friday, Mar. 12. Class A competes the following day. Swimmers from Section 3A would be slated for a noon start.
All three days will take place at noon at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center in Minneapolis on the University of Minnesota campus.
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Shuldes believes the Cardinals have a realistic shot at having state qualifiers in 9 of 12 events.
He has the most confidence in his relay teams. Willmar is seeded fourth in the 200-yard medley relay and second in both the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays.
After qualifying for a pair of individual events last season, Ayden Schueler has a strong chance to repeat that feat in 2021. The senior is the top seed in the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 50.53 seconds. He is also seeded third in the 200 freestyle. Joining him in those two events is junior Colin O'Farrell. He is seeded second in the 100 and sixth in the 200.
Senior Ben Seelhammer has high seeds in the 200 individual medley (second) and the 100 backstroke (third). Eighth-grader David Lammers will join Seelhammer in the 200 IM and is seeded fourth. Senior Logan McGillivray is the fifth seed in the 50 freestyle.
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Schueler, Seelhammer, O'Farrell, McGillivray and junior Aiden O'Meara each will try to swim back to state.
"It's nice having the veteran team that we have," Shuldes said. "They've been through this before, they know what to expect and know how important this meet is. In turn, the older kids are confident and relaxed, and that helps the younger kids."
The journey for the boys to this point has been anything but old hat. Willmar, like the rest of the state, had a condensed season with only duals. While the boys had to adjust their habits and get used to their new normal, Shuldes had the benefit of coaching the girls swimming and diving team in the fall under the same circumstances.
"Definitely learned some things with the girls season with the season being a little bit shorter than we're used to, how to handle things, the timing on things and what to look forward to." Shuldes said. "It was a definite advantage from a coaching standpoint to have gone through it with the girls. The boys definitely benefited from that."
The start of fall sports season marked the return of sports after the spring season was canceled due to the pandemic. Girls swimming and diving teams did not know if they'd have a postseason until six weeks after the season started. The boys teams were made aware of a postseason much sooner into the winter calendar.
With less uncertainties, Shuldes and his boys had a better idea how to taper and train for this part of the season.
"There were so many unknowns with the girls season, it was truly learning on the fly," Shuldes said. "For the boys, we were able to know what to expect a little more. Things were a little more clarified for the boys, not as many questions, and that definitely made things easier as far as being able to set up a timeline."
Swimmers to watch
Elsewhere, ninth-grader Austin Dunn, sophomore Evan Smith and senior Ashton Christopher represent Montevideo's best chances at punching tickets to state.
Smith is seeded fifth in the 100 butterfly with a time of 59.75. Dunn and Christopher will each compete in the 100 backstroke and are seeded fourth and sixth, respectively.
Dassel-Cokato/Litchfield's Logan Christopherson will look to make back-to-back trips to state after making the big dance in the 100 breaststroke last season. He is seeded third in that event this year and is also fifth in the 200 individual medley.
D-C/Litch has overcome the challenges of the COVID restrictions. Fielding a team of 38 athletes, the team spent most of the season apart, with swimmers and divers practicing at their respective schools. However, with the team trimmed leading up to the section meet, the team prepared as a unit at Litchfield in recent weeks.
"The last two-and-a-half weeks, we've been able to swim as a group with the kids going on to sections and build that team comradery and get the team bonding going," D-C/Litch head coach Peter Travis said. "That helps going into sections as well."