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Sixth-year Willmar diver standing tall

Tribune file photo by Rand Middleton.1 / 2
Tribune photos by Rand Middleton Six-foot senior Bennet Woltjer, shown on the 1-meter board at Wednesday practice, was a 4-foot-7-inch seventh-grader when he became the varsity's lead diver. In his sixth season, he tutors fellow seniors, from left, Austin Gratz, Lucas Freidlein and Sam Murphy.2 / 2

Bennet Woltjer scored 231.90 on the 1-meter board Tuesday night in a dual meet. That's 3 points short of his career-best. The Willmar Cardinal senior has an eye on the school record board and the 272.1 score posted by Darren Melin in 1985.

He's come a long way in six years. He began as a raw seventh-grader with no background in the sport. The program had had no divers the previous two seasons and no coach.

He was 4-foot-7 and didn't weigh much more than a trophy musky.

But he lettered that first year, even won a few meets though a 108 was his best score.

He received help from volunteer coach Alicia Alvarado. She was in her junior year and on the girls team (she now is in her senior year on the Gustavus Adolphus diving team). Alicia coached him up those first two years.

"I learned the techniques and basics from her," Bennet told me.

Aaron Weidemann also stepped in as a seventh-grader and lettered. He later would transition back to swimming and, like Bennet, is in his last year on the team.

Bennet, the son of Gordy and Shelly Woltjer of Kandiyohi, was encouraged by his parents to be in three sports as a way to stay busy. His older sister Brianna, who had done some diving, suggested he try the specialized activity.

"That first year, I was so small and the other divers seemed gigantic," Bennet said. "I was out of my league."

But he was not overwhelmed. For him jumping into a warm pool as many times as he wished was always "Tons of Fun."

Improvement was steady.

"I was about the same size but I was staying in a tighter ball and my legs were straighter with pointed toes," he says of his eighth-grade campaign.

He scored 141, an early milestone since is qualified for sections with a point to spare.

By his first year at the high school, the slender youth had shot up to 4-foot-11. He developed some muscle which allowed him to throw harder dives.

His growth spurt game the next year. He was suddenly 5-foot-9; his rotations became faster, his tucks tighter, the execution quicker.

Sophomore Sam Murphy came on board. Josh Kelly, Jackson Burton and Isaac Yoakum divided their time between swimming and diving but the program was without an adult coach a second straight year.

Jess Conlin coached the diving squad Bennet's junior year. "She helped be polish my dives," said Bennet.

He also acknowledged that he got help from diving coaches at competing schools, especially Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Montevideo. And, of course, other divers - "We're always helping each other."

The divers are again without a coach, but head coach Carl Shuldes said that is about to change. Kris Hawkinson, formally of Seattle but with local ties, will start next week.

She'll be working with Woltjer and Murphy, plus two other seniors, Lucas Friedlein, in his second year, and rookie Austin Gratz.

Shuldes believes that being a student coach has made Bennet "better because it forces him to think about what his teammates are doing and applies it to his own dives."

Shuldes, who is also the head coach for girls swimming, said the only thing he has contributed to Woltjer's progress is "Encouragement."

He continued: "He has that drive and determination. It's no accident that he has become one of the better divers in the state."

He finished sixth in Class A last winter after placing 15th at state as a sophomore.

His dedication to the sport includes attending the Iowa State summer camp in Ames every year since seventh grade.

The season is still young and Bennet has room to improve both his six- and 11-dive scores.

He'd like that school record and he'd like to dive for a team in college, perhaps the University of Minnesota or Gustavus Adolphus.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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