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Ben Kading (from left), Connor Smythe, Kurt Fritze (alternate), Jake Waggoner and Zach Eystad qualified for the state Class A boys swimming meet in five events.

Confident Panthers coasted to state meet

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Park Rapids' Jake Waggoner, Zach Eystad, Connor Smythe and Ben Kading entered last Saturday's finals of the Section 5A boys swimming meet at Bemidji confident of securing trips to the state Class A meet.

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All four were in perfect position to earn state berths after solid performances during last Friday's preliminaries.

All four delivered in the finals by breaking three school records and qualifying for state in five events.

Waggoner qualified in two individual events by placing fourth in the 200-yard freestyle and second in the 500-yard freestyle. Waggoner met the state cut time with a 1:50.82 in the 200 freestyle and broke Eric Potter's school record with a 5:02.04 in the 500 freestyle. Potter held the record of 5:06.95 since 1998.

Eystad earned a state berth with a runner-up 22.94 in the 50-yard freestyle.

Smythe, Kading, Waggoner and Eystad broke the school record and qualified for state with a runner-up 1:32.39 in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Smythe, Waggoner, Eystad and Sam Goebel set the school record with a 1:32.80 last season.

Smythe capped off the section meet by returning to state in the 100-yard backstroke with a runner-up time of 56.21. That broke Smythe's school record of 57.47 set last season.

Those efforts helped the Panthers finish third behind Alexandria and Fergus Falls in the team standings at the section meet. All four were looking to improve on those teams and advance to the state finals.

Waggoner qualifies in 200, 500

Waggoner had high expectations entering his final section meet.

"My goal at the beginning of the season was to finish in the top three as a team and individually go to state in three events," said Waggoner. "After I qualified in the 200 free, the pressure was off because I knew I was going in at least one event."

The Park Rapids senior wasn't as confident of qualifying in the 200 freestyle before the preliminaries. Finishing second with a 1:51.03 provided all the confident Waggoner needed.

"I felt I had an outside shot (in the 200 freestyle)," said Waggoner. "I didn't think I could get the state cut, but I thought I could get there by placing. I felt really strong (after preliminaries). I thought I could go faster."

Waggoner did go faster in the finals, dropping his time to a 1:50.82. That fourth-place time wasn't good enough to qualify by placing, but easily topped the state qualifying time of 1:51.76. Alexandria's Kris Aaseng (1:47.24) and Max Jacobson (1:50.12) and Bemidji's Tyler Hemp (1:50.51) finished ahead of Waggoner.

"I was ready to go," said Waggoner, who missed breaking Jonah Winter's 2002 school record of 1:50.54. "My goal going in was to break the school record. I was a little disappointed I didn't get it, but getting the school record and finishing in the top 16 at state would be nice."

Qualifying for state in the 200 freestyle gave an already confident Waggoner even more confidence of qualifying for state in the 500 freestyle.

During preliminaries, Waggoner clocked a runner-up time of 5:07.27. Even though Waggoner didn't get the school record, he knew that record would fall in the finals.

"I knew I was going to go in the 500 free. I had no worries in that race," said Waggoner. "I wanted to break the school record the first day, but I didn't go all out. I wanted to save myself for the finals. I was very happy with where I was at."

The finals went as planned as Waggoner broke the school record and advanced to state with a runner-up time of 5:02.04. Aaseng took first in 4:48.50.

"I wanted to break the school record," said Waggoner. "Going in I was pretty confident. I made my move with 200 yards to go and I knew I had the record with 50 yards left."

At last year's state meet, Waggoner finished 20th in the 500 freestyle with a time of 5:13.58. Waggoner is counting on getting under 5:00 and contending for all-state honors in his second and final trip to state.

"I want to go under 5 minutes and finish in the top 8 at state," said Waggoner. "I think that is an incredibly realistic goal."

Eystad qualifies in 50 freestyle

Eystad was looking to swim under 23 seconds and advance to state in the 50 freestyle in his final section meet.

The Park Rapids senior reached both goals in impressive fashion.

During last Friday's preliminaries, Eystad led the field with a lifetime best of 22.78. That provided all the confidence Eystad needed entering the finals.

"I was really happy with that (taking first during preliminaries)," said Eystad. "That gave me a lot of confidence. After that I knew I could do it."

In the finals, Eystad ended up finishing second with a 22.94. Detroit Lakes' Carter Krengel took first in 22.78. Even though he didn't win the section title, Eystad was happy qualifying for state in an individual event for the first time.

"I'm hoping to swim faster than 22.78," said Eystad, who qualified for his third state meet. "After being down there before, I know what to expect. I'm not going to be as nervous. It's going to be a lot of fun. My goal is to finish in the top 16 and make it to the second day."

Relay returns to state

Eystad, Waggoner and Smythe were confident of returning to state in the 200 freestyle relay.

Those three joined Sam Goebel on last year's 200 freestyle relay team that broke the school record with a 1:32.80 and finished 19th at the state meet.

During the section preliminaries, Smythe, Kading, Waggoner and Eystad clocked a runner-up 1:34.38. Their splits were 23.94 for Smythe, 23.88 for Kading, 23.59 for Waggoner and 22.97 for Eystad.

That effort reinforced the belief that the 200 freestyle relay would qualify for state in the finals.

"We were seeded second, so I felt pretty confident that we'd go to state," said Smythe. "I was definitely happy taking second. That gave us a good lane for the second day."

"I was looking to go to state," said Kading. "I was pretty happy with our seed. After we took second (during preliminaries), I was pretty sure we'd get it."

"I was feeling pretty good going in. I had a lot of confidence that we'd make it," said Waggoner. "Our goal was to get an inside lane and we got that."

"I thought we'd be in the top 3 for sure and break the record," said Eystad. "I thought if we didn't get there by place, we'd get the cut time."

In the finals, the Panthers used splits of 23.52 by Smythe, 23.53 by Kading, 23.16 by Waggoner and 22.18 by Eystad to clock a 1:32.39, breaking the school record and securing a state berth. Alexandria took first in 1:32.23.

"We were feeling pretty confident," said Smythe. "Everybody was jacked up. We were ready to go."

"I thought we had a good chance to get first, but I was happy with second," said Kading. "I was hoping we'd break the record. I was happy with that."

"Our goal on the second day was to drop a lot of time and break the record," said Waggoner.

"I thought we had a good chance to get first, but I was happy getting second," said Eystad.

With the state berth secured, the four members of the 200 freestyle relay team were looking to drop more time and score some points at the state meet.

"It would be nice to make the final heat," said Smythe. "I'm hoping we break the record again."

"I'm looking forward to doing well," said Kading, who qualified for his first state meet. "I think we're going to go faster. Our splits could have been faster. I think we'll break the record again and have a chance to finish in the top 8 and be all-state."

"We want to make it back to the second day," said Waggoner. "Bringing the relay back to the second day would be a big accomplishment for the program."

"I think we'll swim faster and break the record again," said Eystad. "I'd be happy finishing in the top 16 and swimming the second day, but our ultimate goal is to finish in the top 8."

Smythe returns in 100 backstroke

Breaking the school record and placing at the state meet last year as a sophomore gave Smythe incentive to break his own school record and return to state as a junior.

"I wanted to break my record and get back to state in the 100 backstroke," said Smythe, who qualified for his third state meet. "I felt pretty confident I could do it."

Smythe put himself in perfect position to accomplish both goals with a runner-up time of 57.51 during preliminaries. That just missed his school record of 57.47 set last season.

"I wasn't worried," said Smythe, who entered as the No. 2 seed. "I just wanted to hold my seed."

In the finals, Smythe dropped his time to a 56.21 to finish second and break his record. Fergus Falls' Joe Kitzman won the section title with a 54.79.

"I just wanted to go as fast as I could and give Kitzman a run for the money," said Smythe. "I knew right off the start that I was going to go faster. I knew I was going to break the record."

After placing 16th at last year's state meet with his 57.47, Smythe entered this year's state meet looking to get under 56 seconds and reach the finals.

"I want to get in the top 8 and medal," said Smythe, who joined Eystad on the state-qualifying 200 medley relay team in 2011. "I'd like to be all-state. I think I can do it."

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