The 2014 Lakeland boys’ swim team’s season was successful by just about any definition of the word.
The boys took second in regular-season dual standings before winning the conference meet, set four new conference meet records, had a strong showing at the sectional meet, and culminated the season by sending four swimmers to compete in five events at the WIAA Division II state swim meet in Madison at the end of February.
Head coach Paul Mueller said he was proud of the way his team fought back after a couple of dual meet losses to Shawano to win the team’s second straight Great Northern Conference championship.
“I am very proud of the boys this year, even more so than last year,” he said. “They pulled together and re-grouped after losses to Shawano. Shawano was in better shape for the first one and we were short-handed in the second one, but we came together enough for the conference win.”
As Mueller said, the success of this team truly began with a strong group of seniors and the team atmosphere they created.
“I cannot say enough about team chemistry over the past two years,” he said.
The senior class – Case Aichele, Chris Kresser, Sam Langheim and Leigh Richardson – each contributed to the total team effort in his own way.
“Everyone contributed to our success the past two years, but Sam and Leigh did their job as captains very well. Each has a different style, but both were effective,” Mueller said. “Chris Kresser worked hard in practice, always gave his best in competition and added to team chemistry immensely. Case Aichele was Case ... solid and steady.”
Kresser earned his first varsity letter this season, while Aichele took home his third. Langheim and Richardson, the team captains, were each four-year letter-winners.
On the way to winning the conference swim meet, Lakeland racked up several all-conference selections for top-three finishes at the GNC meet.
In individual events, junior Nick Garcia earned a pair of first-team selections after winning the 100 and 200 freestyle races. Junior Nate Kellner also took home a first-team selection after winning the 50 freestyle. Each of those three swims set new GNC meet records.
Sam Langheim earned two second-team selections for taking the runner-up spot behind Garcia in both the 100 and 200 freestyle races, and Kellner added a second-team selection for his finish in the 100 backstroke.
Jacob Langheim earned an individual all-conference honorable mention selection for his third place finish in the 500 freestyle.
Lakeland’s relay teams had strong showings at the conference meet as well. The 200 freestyle relay team of sophomore Ben Gibson, Richardson, sophomore Vansh Jain and Sam Langheim took the top spot to make the first team. The 400 freestyle team of Sam Langheim, sophomore Evan Andrews, Kellner and Garcia also took home first team honors, and set a new conference record along the way.
The 200 medley relay team of Kellner, Richardson, Andrews and Garcia earned second-team honors for finishing as the runner-up.
Following the conference meet, Lakeland’s strong run continued at sectionals at UW-Stevens Point, where the Thunderbirds scored 205 points, taking fourth place and finishing ahead of all GNC teams at the sectional.
Lakeland also earned three automatic state bids when Kellner won the 50 freestyle, Garcia won the 100 freestyle, and the 200 freestyle team of Kellner, Sam Langheim, Andrews and Garcia took the top spot. Lakeland added two more state events when Garcia’s second place finish in the 200 freestyle and the second place finish of the 400 freestyle relay team of Sam Langheim Kellner, Andrews and Garcia held up to the top times from the other sectional meets around the state.
Those four swimmers – senior Sam Langheim, juniors Garcia and Kellner, and sophomore Andrews – headed to Madison for the WIAA Division II state swim meet, and returned with one of the best state finishes in school history.
Individually, Garcia took fourth place in both the 100 and 200 freestyle, and Kellner finished fourteenth in the 50 freestyle.
The foursome took sixth in the 200 freestyle relay, and then eighth in the 400 freestyle relay, setting a new school record by more than two seconds.
As a team, Lakeland scored 81 points and finished in ninth place.
Mueller said when he looks back at this state run, he will remember most the way the team let everything go and just focused on the swim. Mueller said Kellner, in particular, rebounded from a slight disappointment in his individual race to have a strong showing in the relays.
“They decided not to hold back,” Mueller said. “They believed. Nate let go of disappointment from his 50 and they all just went for it.”
At the season’s end, several awards were doled out to varying members of the team.
The trio of Garcia, Kellner and Sam Langheim were each named Most Valuable Swimmers after their strong performances all season long.
“All three had an outstanding year finishing first or second – most of the time first – all season long and then had super sectional and state swims,” Mueller said.
Jacob Hamerla took home the team’s Rookie of the Year award after the freshman was a frequent point-scorer and varsity staple.
“He usually scored points for us in two individual events and relays throughout the season,” Mueller said. “He was not always swimming what he wanted to, but he swam to the best of his ability every time and scored points for the team.”
Lakeland had a pair of Most Improved award winners in freshman Stanlee Kmiecik and sophomore Jacob Langheim.
Kmiecik was not only a freshman, but a first-time swimmer for the Thunderbirds. Mueller said when Kmiecik joined the team, he didn’t know how to swim with his head in the water, had never dove head-first into a pool, and had never completed a turn.
“By the end of the season, he did all of them,” Mueller said.
Kmiecik swam his first 50 freestyle in competition in 44.51 seconds, and by the end of the season swam a 32.50.
“Stanlee missed his turn completely and still had his best time of the year at sectionals,” Mueller said. “He swam a 500 free for us unafraid, and scored a point for us against Rhinelander with a time of 7:44.21.”
Joining Kmiecik as Most Improved was Jacob Langheim, who as a sophomore, saw a 40-second drop from his 500 freestyle time as a freshman, and became Lakeland’s primary 500 freestyle swimmer while filling in on relays when needed.
He earned all-GNC honorable mention honors for a third place 500 freestyle finish at the GNC meet, and also took sixth at conference as a member of one of Lakeland’s 200 medley relay teams and a ninth as a member of one of the 400 freestyle relay teams.
He finished the season by taking thirteenth in the 500 freestyle at sectionals.
While that duo was singled out as the team’s most improved swimmers, Mueller said all returning swimmers showed improvement from a year ago.
“In fact the whole team had very nice time drops this year which makes me hopeful for that ‘mid-tier’ group necessary to win meets next year,” he said.
That “mid-tier” Mueller mentioned was one of the main reasons Lakeland had such great success this season. While Lakeland usually placed swimmers at the top, the middle was where they scored additional points and secured victories.
Lakeland was also able to see great success, losing just two conference dual meets the entire season, while focusing solely on the conference meet and not worrying too much about the outcome of the duals.
“Returning team members should not have been surprised by my approach as it worked very well for us in the past and was discussed at the beginning of the season,” Mueller said. “The season is simply too short for the conditioning required by the sport if the kids want to win conference and/or make it to state.”
This approach hit a few snags as bitter cold forced school cancellations multiple times and the team internally handled an attitude situation, but the team fought through and came out strong on the other side.
“Resting for dual meets takes away from the body of work. However, it became a bit of an issue when we started working out before home meets in January,” Mueller said. “We were behind in conditioning and simply not ready to perform to the level necessary to win conference – an agreed-upon team goal – without the additional work. I called a team meeting as attitude was becoming a problem. Coach [Bill] Richter and I explained our understanding of the agreed-upon goal and suggested they have a brutally honest discussion of what they, as a team, wanted from the season. Coach Richter and I then left them sort things out for themselves. They did as asked – brutal honesty – and came to a consensus. The coaches were then called back to the pool deck and you know the results.”
The results were a conference championship team that looks to return the majority of its swimmers.
While Sam Langheim, Richardson, Kresser and Aichele graduate, Lakeland brings back a solid core of swimmers, starting with the junior class.
State-qualifiers Garcia and Kellner, as well as Justin Knox, Tylor Parker and Patrick Rucinski, will return as seniors next year.
Additionally, a talented – and large – group of sophomores will return as juniors. State qualifier Andrews will be joined by Gibson, Jacob Langheim, Angel Behn, Sam Forest, Vansh Jain, Bret Weisman and Justin Zanoni.
Hamerla, Kmiecik and Brady Larson, the team’s only three freshmen this season, will be back as well next year.
Mueller is looking forward to the chance to pull off a three-peat as GNC champions, but he knows it won’t be an easy task.
“Next year it will be more difficult,” he said. “Shawano will be strong and Antigo could surprise everyone. We have the potential to be very good again next year, but dual meets will count toward conference champion next year. Had the new rule been in effect this year, we would have been tied with Shawano. Dual meet wins will count as a point, ties a half-point with a conference win worth 12 points.”
While the format for determining the conference champ will be new, Mueller is looking to that large group of returning, experienced swimmers to continue dropping time.
Mueller said he is looking forward to continued improvement from Parker, Behn and Weisman in freestyle events and Rucinksi in the breaststroke.
He is also looking for swimmers to fill the shoes of the four seniors.
“We need Evan Andrews, Ben Gibson, Vansh Jain and Jacob Langheim to help fill the loss of this year’s seniors,” Mueller said. “They had a good year, but we need more next year ... and they are capable.”
With another season come and gone, Mueller also thanked team managers Julia Kelk and Ashley Kidd for their dedication to the team all season. Kelk completed manager duties for the second straight year, while Kidd was with the team for the first time.
“Both are a great help throughout the year,” Mueller said. “They help by writing the workouts on the white board, setting up and controlling the pace/workout clocks, help issue and receive gear and keep the boys in check during the meets. They become like little kids on a road trip – are we here yet? They are much appreciated.”
Jim Oxley may be reached via email at email@example.com.