Rhinelander’s David King competes in the 100-yard butterfly during the WIAA Division 2 state boys’ swimming meet in Madison Friday, Feb. 21. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Rhinelander’s Thaddeus Heck (above) and Devon Gaber (below) compete during the WIAA Division 2 state boys’ swimming meet in Madison Friday, Feb. 21. Heck finished 14th in the 100-yard breaststroke while Gaber finished 11th in the 50 freestyle and 12th in the 100 freestyle.
2/25/2020 7:33:00 AM RHS swimmers record only 1 top-10, place 14th at WIAA D2 state meet
MADISON - The seniors on the Rhinelander High School boys' swim team have had a remarkable four-year run that included a pair of conference championships, a pair of sectional titles and trips to the podium at the WIAA state meet.
However, a storybook ending for the Hodags was not in the cards Friday night.
Rhinelander failed to reach the podium with any of its nine entries and finished 14th overall in the WIAA Division 2 state meet in Madison.
The Hodags came in seeded third overall in the 200 freestyle relay, and fourth in the 200 medley relay. Rhinelander finished outside the top six in both and was left off the medal stand on a night when matching seed times and improving qualifying position was difficult for the Hodags to do.
"Times weren't what we wanted. It wasn't our night tonight," coach Jenny Heck said. "But, that being said, the journey has been great and it's a lot to celebrate. Sometimes this happens in your swimming career, your season and that's OK. I'm so proud of these guys. They gave it their all. They didn't hold back."
That was a sentiment echoed by her seniors.
"Bittersweet. Tonight's really a celebration of our season," Thaddeus Heck said. "No other team in this building has the resume we do. We underperformed tonight, but I'm still really proud of these guys."
Still it felt more bitter than sweet on the deck afterward as tears and hugs were shared by the Hodag seniors.
"When you finish the race and don't have the time that you want, it really sucks, but getting out of the pool and getting received by this team more than makes up for it, absolutely makes up for it," said David King. "I couldn't have asked for a better meet."
Only one of Rhinelander's nine entries improved its qualifying position from sectionals. Freshman Jack Antonuk picked up one spot to finish 15th in the 200-yard individual medley after getting into the event as the final qualifier. Only two entries - Antonuk in the IM (2:06.80) and Devon Gaber in the 100 freestyle (49.43) - finished faster than their qualifying times.
The meet started with the Hodags narrowly missing the podium in the 200 medley relay as the team of Joseph Heck, Thaddeus Heck, King and Gaber finished seventh with a time of 1 minute, 40.97 seconds - 0.42 seconds behind Whitefish Bay for the sixth and final spot on the podium.
That ended up being Rhinelander's only top 10 finish of the evening.
"We were great at sectionals," Jenny Heck said. "We thought we could go faster today, but we were right there, maybe a little bit slower. When you're competing with some of these guys who don't rest until tonight, it makes it tough. We'll keep plugging away, doing out best and see what we can do in the future."
Rhinelander was the defending champion in the 200 freestyle relay and came in seeded third, but the Hodags added 1.14 seconds to their sectional time as they finished last in the final heat and 11th overall (1:31.12) with the team of Daniel Gillingham, Gaber, Joseph Heck and Charlie Heck. Gaber also finished 11th in the 50 freestyle (22.43) and 12th in the 100 freestyle.
"I felt the fastest I ever felt in my life, just the times were obviously not there but, in the water I felt perfect," Gaber said.
Thaddeus Heck's attempt to break the school record in the 100 breaststroke came up short as, for the second year in a row, he added time in the event at state. His time of 1:02.54 was still his third-fastest in the event during high school competition, and was 1.28 seconds off the school record as he finished 14th overall.
Joseph Heck was 15th in the 50 free (23.06), King finished 16th in the 100 butterfly (56.01) and the Hodags were 16th in the 400 freestyle relay with the team of King, Antonuk, Gillingham and Charlie Heck (3:32.13).
There were a few reasons that the Hodags times may have reversed direction. The majority of the team tapered its training for sectionals and struggled to hold on to the time-optimizing rest in their training for an additional week. Also, it was announced just prior to the start of the meet that the adjustable angled wedges on the starting blocks would not be used because one of the wedges had malfunctioned during warmups.
"It might have taken away some of their (confidence)," coach Heck said of the inability to use the wedges. "Though everyone was in the same boat, but I think it took away some of their mental preparation and threw them off. You always have to be prepared for adjustments and that's a learning lesson as well."
Though the ending was bittersweet, coach Heck said she was proud of the three seniors - King, Gaber and Thaddeus Heck - for both their accomplishments in the pool and their leadership out of it.
"It's hard not to bring tears to my eyes talking about this group of seniors," she said. "They're even more special out of the pool than they are in the pool - and they're pretty special in the pool. In life, you don't get that a lot. You might have a great team, but not great people. Here we had great people and a great team and great leaders. I think that's a win."
On the other end of the spectrum, coach Heck said the three freshmen on the state squad - Antonuk, Gillingham and Charlie Heck, acquitted themselves well in their first state meet experience. Virtually everyone on the team traveled down with the state qualifiers and got a taste of the atmosphere in what will likely be the final WIAA boys' state meet conducted at the current UW-Madison Natatorium, with a new natatorium scheduled to open later this year.
"I think this had been motivating for those returning swimmers," coach Heck said. "They know what they need to do and that it's not just three months of training. It's a year of training to get ready for today."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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