In this Jan. 30, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Thaddeus Heck swims breaststroke during a dual meet against Lakeland in Rhinelander. Heck was a conference and sectional champion for the Hodags in the breaststroke. Photos by Bob Mainhardt/River News.
In this Feb. 15, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Devon Gaber celebrates with the WIAA Division 2 sectional championship plaque following a meet in Wisconsin Rapids. The Hodags had another strong season in 2019-20, winning the GNC and sectional titles, while sending nine entries to the WIAA Division 2 state meet.
3/24/2020 7:28:00 AM Team review: RHS boys' swimming:
Bitter end doesn't sour sweet season for Hodag swimmers
The 2019-20 Rhinelander High School boys' swim season did not have the same storybook ending as the 2018-19 campaign. But, when compared to the last quarter century for Hodag swimming, it still ranks right up there as one of the team's best seasons.
In 2019-20, the Hodags went undefeated in the Great Northern Conference for a second year in a row, won the GNC with a record margin of victory, earned their second consecutive sectional title and had nine entries qualify for the WIAA state meet.
The only piece missing was a strong showing at state. Unlike last year - when the Hodags had two state championships, two runner-up finishes and two other trips to the podium, Rhinelander was unable to crack the top six in any event at state this season.
"Bittersweet. Tonight's really a celebration of our season," senior Thaddeus Heck said on deck at the UW Natatorium in Madison shortly after the conclusion of the state meet. "No other team in this building has the resume we do. We underperformed tonight, but I'm still really proud of these guys."
Here are five storylines from the recently completed season.
While a couple of GNC schools had top-level talent that could compete with, and sometimes beat, Rhinelander's best swimmers, no conference school came close to matching Rhinelander's depth.
That showed throughout the conference season as the Hodags broke 100 points in all 10 conference duals and cruised to a perfect dual meet record.
That dominance continued Feb. 7 when the Hodags hosted the GNC meet at the Heck Family Community Pool.
Rhinelander won four events, and had at least one top-three finish in all 11 races, as it smashed the competition. The Hodags set the 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 ever 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.
"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."
The success carried through to sectionals as the Hodags swam to a repeat championship, winning two events on the day.
Teams were allowed only 18 individual entries plus one relay per event. The Hodags made the most of their lineup as 18 of its 21 total entries finished inside the top eight to reach the podium and all 21 entries bettered their seed times.
"I think everyone dropped time and that's what we wanted," Jenny Heck said. "They placed about where they were or maybe up a little bit. Everyone here's in the same boat. They're shooting to get their best times of the season. If you can up a seed, that's great. If you can beat another team, that's awesome. I think we did what we needed to do and I think the guys are thrilled."
Thaddeus Heck won a sectional title in the 100 breaststroke while the Hodag 200 freestyle relay team of Daniel Gillingham, Devon Gaber, Joseph Heck and Charlie Heck won the event by 0.10 seconds over Lakeland.
The Hodags earned seven at large berths for the state meet in addition to the automatic berths received for winning events at sectionals. Devon Gaber qualified in the 50 and 100 freestyle, Joseph Heck made it in the 50 freestyle, Jack Antonuk qualified in the 200 individual medley, David King made it in the 100 butterfly and the Hodags also sent their 200 medley (Joseph Heck, Thaddeus Heck, David King, Gaber) and 400 freestyle (Gillingham, Charlie Heck, Antonuk, David King) relays to Madison.
The Hodags had three seniors on the squad - Thaddeus Heck, Devon Gaber and David King - who all played key roles.
The three were relied upon to accumulate plenty of points in individual races as well as serve key roles in the relays.
"It's hard not to bring tears to my eyes talking about this group of seniors," Jenny Heck said after the state meet. "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."
Thaddeus Heck said the group shared a special bond, and was always willing to push one another to make the team better.
"We're loaded in every event, so if you need to challenge yourself, you just ask the person next to you pretty much," he said. "They're like, 'Yes, I'll do this set with you.' You win some, you lose some on the set. You push each other and that's why we're strong."
The team's added depth this season came from an influx of freshmen who had plenty of swimming experience. Antonuk, Gillingham and Charlie Heck all came in with strong swimming backgrounds. Carter Gaber and Daniel King, while relatively new to the sport, contributed points throughout the season as well.
The team also got a boost as sophomore Gavin Ostermann joined the sport after wrestling as a freshman and became a proficient butterflier and freestyler for the team.
The Hodags will need all the underclassmen to make a jump next year in order to maintain the success of each of the last two seasons. With three seniors departing, and no freshmen projected to join the squad, the team will not have as much depth as it had this past season.
Yet, the team is set to return seven swimmers who earned all-conference honors this year. With Tomahawk graduating standout Travis Phillips and Lakeland losing two of its big four, in graduating Brandon Boh and Tyler Teichmiller, expect the Hodags to be back contending for another conference title next year, if not more.
"I think this has been motivating for those returning swimmers," coach Heck said following the state meet. "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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