Rhinelander High School swimmers who qualified for the WIAA Division 2 state meet pose for a photo prior to practice at the Heck Family Community Pool Monday, Feb. 17. In the front row, from left to right, are Charlie Heck, Thaddeus Heck, Joseph Heck and Daniel Gillingham. In the back row are Jack Antonuk, Devon Gaber and David King. Rhinelander has nine entries for the state meet, which takes place Friday night at the UW-Natatorium in Madison. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
2/20/2020 7:35:00 AM Mix of old and new for Hodag swimmers heading to state
It is an interesting dichotomy for the Rhinelander High School boys' swim team as it prepares for the WIAA Division 2 state meet Friday night in Madison. Seven swimmers qualified for the meet, giving Rhinelander nine entries in the state competition, but there is a clear difference between the qualifiers.
On one hand, there are four upperclassmen - Devon Gaber, Joseph Heck, Thaddeus Heck and David King - who have all qualified for state multiple times and return to the UW-Natatorium after finishing first or second in a relay at last year's state meet.
On the other hand, there are three freshmen - Jack Antonuk, Daniel Gillingham and Charlie Heck - who will be making their state meet debut.
"It's an interesting group, but they mesh well together. The upperclassmen are great mentors for the younger swimmers," coach Jenny Heck said. "They all have experience swimming at championship meets, even the freshmen. I think they'll be ready and calm enough because they can handle those situations, but also be really excited."
Those returning state swimmers have a great experience on which to build. Rhinelander posted five podium finishes last year and placed third overall in the Division 2 field. Though the makeup of this year's state team is different, Thaddeus Heck said the Hodags will draw from last year's experience.
"Last year was our most successful year so it really shows that we can compete with the greats," he said. "I think I speak for everyone when we say we're not afraid of anyone. We know who the top guys are so we're gunning for them right now."
Some storylines to follow at state:
The Hodags qualified all three of its relays for the state meet and have a legitimate chance to finish on the podium in two of those races.
Rhinelander is the defending state champion in the 200 freestyle relay and defending runner-up in the 200 medley relay. The Hodags enter this year's state meet seeded third in the 200 free relay (1:29.98) and fourth in the 200 medley relay (1:40.74).
"It's going to be fast," coach Heck said. "All the seed times are right there. If we can be top six in both of those, that would be great."
Rhinelander has two new cogs in each of those relays following the graduation of Nolan Francis and Russell Benoy. Joseph Heck took over for Francis in the backstroke leg of the medley while Gaber replaced Benoy for the freestyle leg. King and Thaddeus Heck are back to swim the butterfly and breaststroke legs, respectively.
Joseph Heck and Gaber are the two holdovers on the 200 freestyle relay team from last year and are joined by Gillingham and Charlie Heck.
"It's going to be to try to get a better seed time than third, try to get up to the time we got last year and live up to the expectation everyone's been setting for us, being the returning state champions," Gaber said. "We really want to come back and get as good as we did last year."
Madison Edgewood is poised to defend its state title in the medley relay, entering with the top qualifying time of 1:36.88. Baraboo is close behind in second (1:37.14), followed by Menomonie (1:40.70), which barely out-touched Rhinelander for the win in the event at last week's Wisconsin Rapids sectional.
Elkhorn is the team to beat in the 200 free relay with a time of 1:27.00. Whitefish Bay (1:28.20), Rhinelander, Edgewood (1:30.07) and Lakeland (1:30.08) round out the top five seeds.
Rhinelander was the 16th and final qualifier in the 400 freestyle relay with the team of Jack Antonuk, Charlie Heck, Gillingham and King (3:27.53).
"We knew that a 3:27, at minimum, was needed to get in and that's what it was," coach Heck said. "They really went after it. Jack had to come right out of the breaststroke and regroup. They all swam their best 100 free time splits. It took that, and I think they all have faster times in them and we're looking forward to more drops this week."
There is a chance Rhinelander could break a school record or two during Friday night's meet. Perhaps the best chance will come in the 100 breaststroke where Thaddeus Heck is chasing the school mark of 1:01.26 in the event.
"I've been waiting to get that all season and now that I'll be fully tapered for state, that's definitely a goal," he said. "I don't even want to get it, I want to crush it. I've been looking at that record for a while and I think that would be a very special time to get on my last swim."
Heck's sectional time of 1:02.32 was the second-fastest time he's posted in the event during high school competition, behind only his sectional-winning time of 1:02.10 last year. Heck added time at state a season ago, going 1:02.74 to finish 15th in the event.
The Hodags are chasing last year's times at state in the 200 medley and freestyle relays to re-write other records. The Hodags went 1:37.61 in the medley and 1:27.76 in the freestyle relay last year. The Hodags come in roughly three seconds off the pace in the medley and two seconds off in the freestyle.
Gaber has a four-event program at state in all of the sprint freestyle events. He qualified for the 50 and 100 freestyle in addition to his two relay events.
Gaber is seeded eighth in the 50 freestyle (22.27) and ninth in the 100 (49.51). There is some symmetry for Gaber as he finished eighth in both events at state last year.
Joseph Heck will be swimming individually at state for the first time after qualifying 13th in the 50 freestyle.
Antonuk, Gillingham and Charlie Heck are all swimming multiple events in their first state meet appearance.
The ninth-grade trio makes up three-fourths of the 400 freestyle relay while Charlie Heck and Gillingham are also on the 200 freestyle relay. Antonuk also made it as the 16th and final qualifier in the 200 individual medley.
"This is definitely going to be a new and fun experience, especially being the last year at the Natatorium. It should be really fun," Gillingham said.
Antonuk said the upperclassmen have been talking to the freshmen for the past few weeks about what to expect Friday night at the UW-Natatorium. King said state can be quite the eye-opening experience the first time.
"Honestly, it's kind of overwhelming the first time," he said. "You're at this natatorium and it's huge. It's super loud, really hyped up. There's so much going on. Honestly, if I could go back, I would try to keep myself a little more focused on the swimming."
On the other end of the spectrum, Friday's meet will mark the last high school competition for Thaddeus Heck, Gaber and King, who would love nothing more than to end their high school careers on a high note.
"That's why I really hope we can podium and get them on that one last time," coach Heck said. "This is their fourth year down at state and they've had some really great experiences. I want them going out feeling that they did everything that they could do."
In addition to the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays, King is swimming in the 100 butterfly, where he is seeded 14th (54.74). He placed 12th in the event at state a year ago.
Gaber said there will be no holding back Friday night.
"There's definitely a lot of extra tension, extra nerves, but I'm more excited than I've ever been for any meet in my life. I'm definitely ready to bring it all to the table," he said.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce