The Rhinelander High School boysí swim team celebrated after winning the Great Northern Conference championship Feb. 2 at the Lakeland Union High School pool in Minocqua. The Hodags lost eight seniors from that championship team. (Bryan Rose/Lakeland Times)
11/24/2012 7:30:00 AM Team Preview: RHS boys' swimming Defending GNC champion Hodags must filled holes left by graduated seniors
The Rhinelander High School boys' swim team has to fight against the current if it wants to repeat as Great Northern Conference champions.
The Hodags had a strong senior class last season. The departure of eight seniors has left some big shoes to fill and the Hodags do not have a lot of athletes to fill those roles, with just 12 swimmers on the roster, as the team prepares for its first meet Tuesday at Shawano.
"I've been penciling some things in (for our lineup), but it's going to be tough right now," coach Amber Laggis said of replacing the seniors who competed at the GNC meet last February. "Looking at lineups from last year, sometimes we had three seniors that were doing backstroke. We had seniors doing butterfly. There is a big hole and a gap left by them.
"I think some of the events might be open. We might just have two guys in them, but we've got to have at least two boys in every event and whoever is swimming those events can hopefully have fast swims and score points."
Joey Virgilio, Krisz Pallagi, Wyatt Kieffer, Stuart Dewell, Jade Mutter, Dan Meyer, Brian Konicek and Andrew Toms are the key members lost to graduation. As a result, the Hodags are thin on experience at the top of the lineup.
"Mik Kuczmarski, Conar Labelle and Jake Zalewski are the returning swimmers who have previous swimming experience," Laggis said. "Those are who we are looking to, to be the leaders. Our other returning swimmers were brand-new (to the sport) last year. This is only their second year of swimming. They've done a lot of good things and improved, but they are still pretty new."
Zalewski, a sophomore, is the reigning GNC champion in the 100-yard breaststroke. He added top-three finishes in the 200 freestyle relay, the 400 freestyle relay and the 200 individual medley at the GNC meet. Kuczmarski finished third in the 100 breaststroke and sixth in the 100 freestyle at conference. Labelle finished seventh in the 500-freestyle, one of four Hodags in the top seven in that event a year ago.
Laggis said those three will be expected to score points.
"Probably at the start of the season, they are going to have to swim some of the tougher events, because we don't have enough guys who are ready to swim those events," she said.
The Hodags also have a pair of freshmen with previous swimming experience through the Rhinelander Swim Club - Kirby Kuehn and Sam Olson.
"Kirby swam swim club for numerous years," Laggis said. "Sam took a year off, but he's back to swimming. Those two are going to be huge additions to the team for sure. Kirby, especially, is someone I know I can put in those tough events. That's really awesome to have."
The Hodags went 2-1-1 in GNC duals last year, losing to Lakeland and tying Shawano. Rhinelander got the last laugh at the GNC meet, rallying in the final five events to edge Shawano by nine points for the conference title.
A lot of things would have to fall into place, but Laggis said repeating as champions is not out of the realm of possibility.
"I definitely think there's a chance," she said. "I think we've got a lot of work to do. If we are going to do it, it definitely falls on our newer swimmers improving a lot. We need some people to want to be the main guy in certain events, like the 500, the butterfly, the backstroke, the IM and the 200 free.
"Shawano's definitely going to be tough competition. Lakeland has some good swimmers. I don't know what Tomahawk's going to have. I don't know what Medford's going to have. I'm thinking we might have some closer swim meets than we'd like, but I'm hoping we can come out with quite a few wins."
The GNC schedule has changed this year. Each team will now swim eight conference duals, two against every other team in the conference instead of one. However the GNC meet remains the lone determining factor for the conference champion and the All-GNC swim team.
Laggis said she is pleased with the effort the team has put forth thus far in practice. She hopes that effort will lead some individuals to state come February.
"I think we're working a lot harder this year at the beginning of the season than we have in previous seasons," she said. "The returning swimmers have put in some good yardage. The new swimmers have been learning strokes, turns and starts, and are really improving really fast.
"We definitely want guys to finish in the top-eight at sectionals and we'd love to have someone go to state. The boys really want to do it. It's just a matter of getting that want and really wanting to work hard to earn your way to state. It's not an easy equation, but to (make it to state) you have to put in the hard work."
Following Tuesday's season opener at Shawano, the Hodags head to Stevens Point for an invite Thursday. The team's first home meet is the annual Hodag Relays Dec. 8 at the Heck Family Community Pool.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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