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April 4, 2020

Rhinelander’s Devon Gaber holds up the Great Northern Conference championship trophy as his teammates celebrate around him at the Heck Family Community Pool Friday, Feb. 7. The Hodags won the conference title by 132 points over runner-up Tomahawk. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Devon Gaber holds up the Great Northern Conference championship trophy as his teammates celebrate around him at the Heck Family Community Pool Friday, Feb. 7. The Hodags won the conference title by 132 points over runner-up Tomahawk. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Thaddeus Heck competes in the 100-yard breaststroke during the Great Northern Conference meet in Rhinelander Friday, Feb. 7. Heck won the event, setting a conference-record time of 1 minutes, 3.53 seconds.
Rhinelander’s Thaddeus Heck competes in the 100-yard breaststroke during the Great Northern Conference meet in Rhinelander Friday, Feb. 7. Heck won the event, setting a conference-record time of 1 minutes, 3.53 seconds.
2/11/2020 7:30:00 AM
A league of their own
Hodags dominate GNCs, claim second straight conference swim title

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor


No one in the Great Northern Conference could touch the Rhinelander High School boys' swim team during the dual meet season. The Hodags left the rest of the conference further in their wake Friday night with everything on the line.

Rhinelander won four events, and had at least one top-three finish in all 11 races, as it won its second straight GNC boys' swim title with ease Friday night in front of the home crowd at the Heck Family Community Pool.

The Hodags set a record for the largest margin of victory in the GNC meet, beating runner-up Tomahawk by a whopping 132 points. The 417 points Rhinelander accumulated were the second-most scored by a team in the conference meet (Lakeland, 431 points, 2013) and the most scored in the conference meet since the conference expanded from five to six teams in 2014.

"It feels absolutely excellent," said senior Thaddeus Heck, who broke the conference record in the 100-yard breaststroke and scored three top-three finishes on the night. "All that work we put in finally paid off and, as a cherry on top, for our last (conference) meet, it was at home. What a wonderful atmosphere we had. It's the best conference meet I've ever been to and had the honor of swimming. It's been an absolute great ride."

"I couldn't be prouder of these guys," coach Jenny Heck said. "These seniors really just took the lead and took charge tonight. I appreciate their leadership and their dedication to swimming and to helping these younger kids, showing them what it's like to be on top and how to strive for more and be better swimmers, better people."

Rhinelander led the meet wire to wire, starting the night with a victory in the 200 medley relay. Lakeland won the most events, taking five individual titles, but Rhinelander's superior depth overwhelmed the rest of the conference. Ten different Hodags earned all-conference honors by placing in the top three in at least one event and the Hodags had 12 different swimmers earn at least one trip to the podium by placing in the top six. Only once in the 11 events did the Hodags fail to have multiple finishers inside the top six.

"Strength in numbers has definitely helped us a lot this season," Thaddeus Heck said. "We do not have any weak links on this team. We are powerful in every single event and that showed and shined tonight."

That especially showed in the relay events as the Hodags placed both their A and B entries in the top four in all three races.

Rhinelander finished fractions of a second off the conference records in the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays. Joseph Heck, Thaddeus Heck, David King and Devon Gaber took the win in the 200 medley (1 minute, 43.25 seconds), only a third of a second off the record the Hodags set in the event last year. Daniel Gillingham, Devon Gaber, Joseph Heck and Charlie Heck made up the winning quartet in the 200 free relay (1:31.96), 0.44 seconds off conference-record pace.

"We were really close to that conference record, but I think that the important thing is that we had so much fun," King said. "It doesn't even matter that we didn't break the record because it was just so much fun."

Rhinelander placed third with its top entry in the 400 free relay (Gillingham, Jack Antonuk, King, Charlie Heck) and third with its second entry in the 200 free relay (Thaddeus Heck, Jacob Schoppe, Marcus O'Malley and Gavin Ostermann). The Hodags took fourth with their second entries in both the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays.

"The B relays were beating other A relays. That proves all these kids are so fast. We couldn't give everybody individual events because we have such a fast team," Jenny Heck said.

In his final high school race in the pool that bears his family's name, Thaddeus Heck took down the conference record in the breaststroke with a time of 1:03.53 seconds - eclipsing the record set two years ago by Lakeland's Tyler Teichmiller by a tenth of a second. Heck said he constantly reminded himself of that record all week, going so far as to make it the wallpaper on his cellphone.

"I've had my eye on that record since the records have been up," he said. "Since seven years old, I've always dreamed of getting one of those records here and it was a perfect end to a perfect conference season."

"I couldn't be happier for Thaddeus," said Jenny Heck, who is Thaddeus' aunt. "He's worked so hard. He's trained a lot. He's had this goal in mind for some time. He really works the breaststroke. That's everything to him. I was so pleased that he made it not only first but with a conference record."

Though he didn't break a conference record, Devon Gaber felt similar elation when he led a Hodag 1-2 finish to the wall in the 100 freestyle. His time of 50.96 seconds beat Gillingham by 1.27 seconds for the win.

"It was awesome knowing I could take it out and go as hard as I possibly could and get my first conference win, it feels amazing," he said.

Coach Heck said Gaber has come a long way from starting out as a freshman.

"I was so happy for Devon, a senior. He just started swimming his freshman year in high school and ends up winning that conference title. It just means a lot, I'm sure, to him. To see how far he's come in four short years is amazing," she said.

Gaber was one of three Hodags to earn all conference honors in all four of his events. In addition to his win in the 100 free and his role on the winning 200 medley and freestyle relay teams, Gaber finished second in the 50 freestyle, behind Lakeland's Liam Hogan, who set a new conference record in the event (21.97).

Joseph Heck added third-place finishes in the 50 freestyle and 100 backstroke to his wins as part of the 200 medley and freestyle relays. Gillingham was also third in the 200 freestyle to go along with his other top-three finishes.

Antonuk, a freshman, added runner-up finishes for Rhinelander in both the 200 individual medley and the 500 freestyle. Though he just missed out on all-conference recognition, sophomore Ashton Cole had one of the most impressive performances of the meet as he dropped a whopping 26 seconds from his seed time in the 500 freestyle to crack the 6-minute barrier in the event for the first time and finished fourth overall (5:52.34). Cole added a fifth-place swim in the 200 freestyle.

"He's been swimming it often and just got faster and faster," Jenny Heck said. "He had a great meet tonight. His points were really valuable and amazing. He had the best meet ever (for him). But all of our guys, they all came down in time. They all swam fast."

Charlie Heck was fourth in both the 50 and 100 freestyle, Thaddeus Heck took fourth in the 200 freestyle and David King was fourth in the 100 backstroke. Schoppe took fourth in the 100 butterfly and fifth in the 200 IM. Carter Gaber was fifth in the 100 backstroke and sixth in the 500 freestyle.

The celebration did not last long for the Hodags, who now turn their attention to this Saturday's WIAA Division 2 sectional meet. The Hodags are the reigning sectional champions and are hoping to send another large contingent to the WIAA Division 2 state meet Feb. 21.

"Championship season is officially here and we are on full taper the next two weeks," Thaddeus Heck said. "Sectionals, state we plan on sending quite a few boys there and putting on an excellent show in Madison."

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at jeremy@rivernewsonline.com.





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