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State Boys Swimming: Cards bring their own crowd to state

With no fans in attendance, the Willmar boys swim team will have plenty of spectators with seven qualifiers completing at the U of M this week.

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Willmar senior Ben Seelhammer swims in the 100-yard backstroke during a Central Lakes Conference meet against Brainerd on Jan. 26 from Willmar High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — While spectators won’t be at this year’s Class A state boys swimming and diving championships, Willmar is quite happy with the crowd it's bringing to state.

With the goal of sending seven athletes to state, the Cardinals managed to accomplish that goal in the Section 3A championship. Now, Willmar is hoping for another top 10 team score when the Class A championship begins with diving Thursday and swimming Saturday at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the University of Minnesota campus.

“We certainly hope for the top 10 again,” said Cardinals head coach Carl Shuldes. In 2020, Willmar placed seventh with 113 points. “It’d be nice to get that 200(-yard) free relay in the top eight as well as our individuals. And we want to keep the 400 free relay up there, too.

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“The guys got eyes on the school record boards in reach and we hope we can get one or two of those again. There’s plenty to swim for yet; we’re still not done. We’re ready to hit those goals one more time.”

The way the Cardinal swimmers reach those goals is going to look a lot different on Saturday.

Along with no spectators, the championship meet will be split into two pods. Willmar and the rest of the Section 3A qualifiers will be paired with Sections 1 and 5 in the noon pod. Section 2, 4 and 6 will compete at 6 p.m.

While the state’s top two teams from last year — Breck/Blake and St. Thomas Academy — will be in the evening session, there’s still plenty of strong competition in the Cardinals’ pod, with Sartell, Winona and Alexandria all going 3-4-5 in 2020.

“A lot of the teams that we’re going to face from Section 5A are a lot of our CLC (Central Lakes Conference) rivals, so we’re going to see some familiar teams from Alex and Sartell,” said senior Ayden Schueler. “We got some rivalries there as well as section rivalries, so that’ll certainly be helpful in keeping up the level of competition at the meet.”

High School Swimming: Cardinals hoping to send seven to state

For Willmar to stay in the top 10, the freestyle relays will be leaned on once again. The 400 free relay — with Colin O’Farrell, Ethan Hurley, Ben Seelhammer and Schueler — is seeded fourth with a time of 3 minutes, 17.77 seconds. The 200 free relay — with Logan McGillivray, O’Farrell, Hurley and Schueler — is seeded ninth at 1:31.71.

The top eight in each event earn a medal.

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“We’ve had kind of a nice run with our 400 free relay the last three or four years. I can’t really explain it other than the confidence of the guys,” Shuldes said. “They know coming up as sophomore and juniors that, hey, it’s my turn now. It’s just a next-man-up mentality.”

After winning the section title in the 100 (49.23) and 200 freestyle (1:48.70), Schueler is seeded 15th and 13th in those races. But, Schueler knows there’s some better times out there if he hopes to medal again after placing eighth in the 200 free while just missing out on hardware with a ninth-place time in the 100 free in 2020.

“On Saturday (in sections), I felt pretty good about how I raced,” Schueler said. “I was not super thrilled with my times, they were a little slower than last year but not terribly so, and it’s been a different season for all of us and a lot of the section looked that way.”

Seelhammer is the 10th seed in the 200 individual medley (2:02.21) and 12th in the 100 backstroke (55.38). O’Farrell is seeded 21st in the 100 freestyle (49.55).

In the first relay of the day, the 200 medley — with Seelhammer, Aidan O’Meara, Hurley and McGillivray — is the 15th seed (1:43.12).

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Kale Bockelman will compete in Class A diving after placing fourth in the section championship with a score of 342.15.

“It’s going to be a little hard on Kale being by himself on Thursday. No other Willmar people will be there other than he and I,” Shuldes said. “That’s going to be true for a lot of the divers. It’ll be a long day all by themselves.”

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Aidan O'Meara competes in his leg of the 200-yard medley relay. Willmar took second with a time of 1 minute, 43.12 seconds to earn a state berth Saturday in Willmar. Sarah Jagow/Special to the Tribune

In the state build-up, the Cardinals are fine-tuning on things like starts, turns at the wall, anything that’ll cut milliseconds off their times.

And while fans will have to watch from home, Willmar’s state swimmers hope to add some energy and make it loud on the pool deck.

“Our team has been a remarkably close one for the last several years,” Schueler said. “That really helps to motivate and self-motivate when we go up there, especially without the crowd noise. I have the utmost trust in my teammates and I hope they feel the same way about me. It certainly helps a lot to have them all up there with me.”

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Willmar's Ayden Schueler finished fifth in the 200-yard freestyle during the Central Lakes Conference championship on Feb. 8, 2020 at Willmar High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

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Willmar's Ayden Schueler finished fifth in the 200-yard freestyle during the Central Lakes Conference championship on Feb. 8, 2020 at Willmar High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

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