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Hovelsrud handles the pressure, returns to state

Maija Hovelsrud earned another trip to the state Class A girls swimming meet with a runner-up finish in the 100-yard breaststroke at Saturday's Section 8A meet at Grand Rapids. The Park Rapids senior will compete in the state preliminaries Nov. 17 at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Maija Hovelsrud felt the pressure entering her final race in her final Section 8A girls swimming meet.

Hovelsrud was the section runner-up in the 100-yard breaststroke last season to earn her first trip to the state Class A meet. The Park Rapids senior was one of the favorites to contend for the title in that event again this year and claim one of the two state berths. In addition, Hovelsrud had the added pressure of being the Panthers' last chance to keep alive a streak that had spanned 23 years.

"I was panicking and couldn't calm down," said Hovelsrud. "I was thinking that this could be my last swim for Park Rapids. It was overwhelming."

Hovelsrud handled the pressure, repeating as the section runner-up in her specialty to give Park Rapids a representative at the state meet for the 24th year in a row. Hovelsrud clocked a 1:10.54 in Saturday's finals of the Section 8A meet at Grand Rapids to trail only the winning time of 1:08.56 by Detroit Lakes junior Sydney Gulon. Thief River Falls senior Marley Nelson was a close third in 1:10.60 and Bemidji senior Alyssa Mess was fourth in 1:11.99.

"We knew Maija had to race really well," said Park Rapids head coach Todd Fritze. "The breaststroke was really improved from last year. A lot of kids were returning with experience."

"I was very emotional. Coach Fritze told me to don't let the emotions take over and to trust your training," Hovelsrud. "I did and it got me back to state."

Returning to state wasn't easy for the Park Rapids senior.

At last year's section meet, Nelson won the title in 1:09.51 while Hovelsrud followed in 1:10.49. Mess took third in 1:12.12. With all three of those swimmers back, along with Gulon being the heavy favorite to win the section title, Hovelsrud knew it would be a battle to claim one the two state berths.

Hovelsrud was up for the challenge.

During the regular season, Hovelsrud prepared to return to state in the 100 breaststroke by placing third at the Section 8A True Team meet with a 1:15.01 as Gulon (in 1:10.09) and Nelson (in 1:12.94) led the field. Hess did not swim that event. Gulon also won the Mid-State Conference title in the 100 breaststroke in 1:10.52 while Hovelsrud was second in 1:13.66.

Entering Friday's Section 8A preliminaries, Hovelsrud was the No. 3 seed behind Gulon and Nelson, but clocked the fastest preliminary time of 1:10.40. Mess was second in 1:10.94, Gulon took third in 1:11.57 and Nelson was fourth in 1:12.79.

"I was so happy," said Hovelsrud. "I couldn't figure out where Sydney was. I knew Sydney was taking it easy, but taking first for the first time at a section meet gave me a lot of confidence. It showed the other girls that I was right up there with them."

"Maija swam really well the first day," said Fritze. "She was pretty excited, but she knew she still had to do it again."

In the finals, Gulon lived up to her No. 1 seed with a winning time of 1:08.56 while Hovelsrud used a strong finish to finish second in 1:10.54 to claim the other state berth. Nelson took third in 1:10.60 while Mess was fourth in 1:11.99. The state-qualifying time was a 1:09.81.

"It's a game of tenths, so I always tell the girls that they have to be focused and drive in the last 35 yards," said Fritze. "Maija had a good finish and made it."

"Coach said that if you're able to get out of the pool, you're not swimming fast enough. My goal was to not to be able to get out of the pool. It was tough getting out of that pool," said Hovelsrud. "Coach says you have to push it the last 35 yards and I pushed it as hard as I could. I knew Marley was right next to me. I really wanted it. I slammed into the wall so hard. That was the hardest I've ever swam. I didn't want this to be my last meet and luckily it wasn't."

In her state debut last season, Hovelsrud was the No. 24 seed out of 26 qualifiers and earned a spot in the consolation finals by placing 13th during preliminaries with a 1:09.05, which is still her best time. Hovelsrud ended up placing 14th in the finals with a 1:09.31.

This year, Hovelsrud enters state as the No. 20 seed out of 20 qualifiers. Delano's Jordyn Wentzel (1:04.57), Orono's Caroline Gardner (1:05.16) and Sartell's Betsy Weil (1:05.74) have the top seed times. The top eight finishers in preliminaries advance to the finals while the next eight qualify for the consolation finals. Hovelsrud is looking to cap off her high school swimming career with another spot in the finals.

"I'm optimistic Maija can make it to the second day again," said Fritze. "She obviously has to go faster and drop time. She's got the confidence going in. I think she will drop time."

"I'm happy we got someone to state," said Hovelsrud. "I hope I surprise myself. I want to finish my senior year by breaking my record."