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Swimmers see progress, turn corner

Kevin Merfeld helped the Park Rapids boys swimming and diving team claim runner-up honors at the Mid-State Conference meet and move up to eighth place at the Section 3A meet. Merfeld capped off his senior season by qualifying for state in the 500-yard freestyle.

Over the last two seasons, it was tough for the members of the Park Rapids boys swimming team to see the progress they made.

That changed this season.

Two seasons ago, the Panthers went 0-6 in dual meets, finished third at the Mid-State Conference meet, finished last out of 12 teams at the Section 3A meet with 56 points and qualified one swimmer for the state meet.

Last season, the Panthers went 0-6 in dual meets, finished third at the conference meet, finished last out of 13 teams at the section meet with 67 points and didn't qualify a swimmer for state.

This season, the Panthers made significant progress by going 2-4 in dual meets, claiming runner-up honors at the conference meet, finishing eighth out of 13 teams at the section meet with 161 points and qualifying five swimmers for the state meet.

"We're turning the corner," said Park Rapids head coach Todd Fritze. "The kids are buying into what we're doing. It's nice to have more numbers to work with. There's better competition for spots, which makes everybody better. In order to be fast, you have to work hard and you have to do the extra things, like hitting the weight room and swimming out of season. We had more boys swim over the summer and it showed."

The Panthers opened the season by placing third at the five-team Fergus Falls Invitational with 316 points. Fergus Falls (532) and Detroit Lakes (426) finished ahead of Park Rapids.

After losing dual meets to Sauk Centre/Melrose (112-74) and Bemidji (95-91), the Panthers snapped a 14-meet losing streak with a 98-82 victory over Perham.

Park Rapids took third at the Detroit Lakes Invitational with 260 points to trail Detroit Lakes (416) and Bemidji (344) in this five-team meet. The Panthers followed with dual losses to Sauk Centre/Melrose (110-76) and Detroit Lakes (106-80) before placing sixth at the eight-team Section 5A True Team meet with 892 points. Willmar won the title with 1,249 points.

A 121-49 win over Thief River Falls ended the Panthers' dual-meet schedule with a 2-4 record. The Panthers closed the regular season by claiming runner-up honors at the four-team Park Rapids Invitational with 585 points and at the Mid-State Conference meet with 426 points. Detroit Lakes won both titles, tallying 585 points at the Park Rapids Invitational and 489 points to repeat as conference champs.

At the Section 3A meet, the Panthers compiled 161 points to finish in eighth place. Fergus Falls topped the 13-team field with 415 points. In addition to moving up in the team standings, the Panthers were named Section 3A academic champs.

Highlighting the section meet for the Panthers was qualifying five individuals in four events for the state Class A meet. The 200-yard medley relay team of juniors Sam Goebel and Ryan Mc-Brady, sophomore Zach Eystad and freshman Connor Smythe advanced by placing sixth with a state-qualifying time of 1:47.17. Goebel qualified in the 50 freestyle by placing fourth in 23.35 and in the 100 freestyle by placing fourth in 50.19. Senior Kevin Merfeld qualified in the 500 freestyle by placing third in 5:18.03.

At the state meet, the Panthers didn't advance to the finals in any event as the 200 medley relay team finished 21st out of 21 entrants with a 1:46.86, Goebel finished 19th out of 19 qualifiers in the 50 freestyle with a 23.34 and 21st out of 26 qualifiers in the 100 freestyle with a 50.50, and Merfeld finished 17th out of 17 qualifiers in the 500 freestyle with a 5:18.37.

In addition to those five, the Panthers had 22 other swimmers and divers score points on the varsity this season. That group featured seniors Nick Belfiori and Zach Lohmeier; juniors Tyler Booge and James Wells; sophomores Josh Johnson, Ben Kading, Jake Waggoner, Fred Stinar, Chris Shaw and Kyle Merfeld; freshmen Spencer Adolphson, Steven Osterman, Kalvin Hagan and Aaron Holk; eighth graders Tyler Breitweser, Dillon Schroeder, Matt Konshok and Andrew Zinke; and seventh graders Bobby Bruce, Hunter Utke, Andrew Baldwin and Marcus McKeever.

At the conference meet, Belfiori was the Mid-State champion in the 50 freestyle, Lohmeier won the conference title in the 100 butterfly, and Belfiori, Goebel, Johnson and Eystad won the conference title in the 200 freestyle relay to earn all-conference honors.

Earning all-conference honorable mention honors with runner-up finishes were Kevin Merfeld in the 100 backstroke, Goebel in the 200 individual medley and 100 freestyle, McBrady in the 100 breaststroke, and Johnson in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle. The 200 medley relay team of Kevin Merfeld, McBrady, Goebel and Eystad also took second as did the 400 freestyle relay team of Kevin Merfeld, McBrady, Johnson and Belfiori. McBrady also earned all-conference honorable mention honors by placing third in the 200 individual medley.

In addition to the five state-qualifying swims, the Panthers also scored points in seven other events at the section meet. Another highlight at the section meet was Goebel, Belfiori, Smythe and Eystad breaking the school record with a 1:34.20 in the 200 freestyle relay to place sixth. The old record was 1:34.49 set by Josh Winter, Jonah Winter, Clay Eberhart and Brian Kuehn in 2002.

McBrady placed 11th in the 200 individual medley, Belfiori finished 10th in the 50 freestyle and 12th in the 100 freestyle, Smythe (eighth) and Kevin Merfeld (15th) placed in the 100 backstroke, and McBrady (sixth) and Booge (16th) placed in the 100 breaststroke. The 400 freestyle relay team of Belfiori, McBrady, Kevin Merfeld and Eystad finished ninth to conclude the Panthers' team score at the section meet.

Also competing at the section meet were Waggoner in the 200 freestyle (25th) and 500 freestyle (19th), Lohmeier in the 200 individual medley (23rd) and 100 butterfly (19th), Smythe in the 50 freestyle (22nd), Eystad in the 100 freestyle (26th), Kading in the 500 freestyle (22nd), and Adolphson in the 100 breaststroke (27th).

Goebel led the Panthers with 371 points this season and moved up on the school's all-time list to No. 3 in the 100 freestyle, No. 7 in the 50 freestyle and No. 9 in the 200 individual medley.

McBrady, whose 1:05.98 in the 100 breaststroke at the section meet just missed the state-cut time of 1:05.97, was second in points with 326.50. McBrady ranks No. 8 in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke in school history.

Belfiori was third in points with 312 and moved up to the No. 10 spot in the 50 freestyle.

Eystad compiled 277.50 points this season.

Smythe was fifth in points with 252 and moved up to the No. 7 spot in school history in the 100 backstroke.

Kevin Merfeld climbed to the No. 4 spot in the 500 freestyle and finished sixth in points with 217.

Lohmeier tallied 209.50 points this season.

Johnson was eighth with 208 points and moved up to the No. 4 spot in the 200 freestyle and the No. 8 spot in the 500 freestyle.

Kading finished ninth in points with 162 and Booge was 10th with 154 points. Waggoner (139.50), Adolphson (115.50) and Osterman (109) also scored more than 100 points this season.

Also scoring points on varsity this season were Wells (92), Hagan (86), Stinar (83), Breitweser (77.50), Schroeder (33.50), Konshok (25.50), Bruce (22.50), Shaw (20), Zinke (14), Utke (11), Kyle Merfeld (10.50), Baldwin (7.50), Holk (7) and McKeever (5).

Hagan moved into the No. 4 spot and Stinar climbed to the No. 10 spot in diving for 11 dives.

Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers have three key swimmers to replace in Kevin Merfeld, Belfiori and Lohmeier. However, with 24 swimmers and divers returning, Fritze is expecting the Panthers to continue making progress next season.

"I like where the program is at," said Fritze. "Our expectations are always high. We have a good nucleus coming back. If we can keep getting kids out and if the kids keep working hard, good things are going to happen."