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Panthers peaked at right time

Todd Fritze's main goal for the Park Rapids girls swimming and diving team is to peak at the Section 8A meet.

The Panthers did that again this season, posting 25 season-best times and 23 personal-best efforts en route to winning the section title and qualifying for the state Class A meet in four events.

"The main thing we've been stressing the last two years is to have the drive and hunger to succeed. The girls had it this year," said Fritze, who was named the Section 8A Coach of the Year. "At the beginning of the season, there was a different atmosphere. The girls were confident and couldn't wait to start the season. The girls really stepped it up. It was a total team effort all season."

During the regular season, the Panthers went 6-1-1 in dual meets and finished second at the Mid-State Conference meet.

Park Rapids peaked at the section meet by compiling 359.50 points to claim the Section 8A title for the fifth time in school history.

The Panthers capped off the season by sending four individuals to state. Senior Kyja Penning advanced in diving and the 100-yard butterfly and joined freshman Katherine Erickson, sophomore Mandy Schirmers and freshman Emily Creager in the 200-yard medley relay. Erickson also advanced in the 100 backstroke. All four received all-section honors.

At the state meet, Penning placed 13th in diving and 15th in the 100 butterfly as the Panthers tied for 40th place with 6 points. The medley relay team placed 19th and Erickson finished 21st in the 100 backstroke to miss advancing to the finals.

In addition to the four state qualifiers, senior Abby Hanson; juniors Melissa Haas, Leah Meinert and Taylor Ondracek; sophomore Allycia Zinke; freshmen Jessica Andersen, Heather Kniss, Elizabeth Nichols and Hannah Williams; eighth graders Seri Erickson, Taylor Graham, Ellen Hoffman, Christina Mackley and Alex Pederson; and seventh graders Emily Eystad, Jessie O'Hern, Danielle Lockrem and Lauren Rossman all contributed to the Panthers' success.

After finishing second out of seven teams at the season-opening Detroit Lakes Pentathlon with 143.50 points, the Panthers defeated Warroad (95-83), Thief River Falls (117-68), Fosston/Bag-ley (59-35), Crookston (94-80) and Perham (103-77) to open the dual season with a 5-0 record. The Panthers also finished third at the seven-team Park Rapids Invitational with 341 points. Detroit Lakes won the team title in the season opener with 199 points while Melrose (565 points) and Brainerd (502 points) finished ahead of the Panthers at their home invitational.

A 93-93 tie with Bemidji and a 95-91 loss to Detroit Lakes ended the Panthers' dual schedule at 6-1-1. Park Rapids then claimed runner-up honors at the Section 8A True Team Championship with 1,359 points to trail only Bemidji's 1,439 total in this nine-team meet.

Despite competing without Schirmers and Creager, the Panthers claimed runner-up honors at the conference meet with 400 points. Perham/New York Mills won the conference title with 418 points.

Erickson, Williams, Penning and Zinke earned all-conference honors by winning the 200 medley relay. Receiving all-conference honorable mention honors were Meinert (third in the 200 free-style), Zinke (second in the 200 individual medley and third in the 100 butterfly), Erickson (third in the 50 freestyle and second in the 100 backstroke), Penning (second in diving and the 100 butterfly), and Ondracek (third in the 100 backstroke). The 200 freestyle relay team of Rossman, Haas, Williams and Meinert and the 400 freestyle relay team of Erickson, Penning, Meinert and Zinke also received all-conference honorable mention honors with runner-up finishes.

The Panthers then excelled at the section meet by qualifying at least one individual for the finals in all 12 events.

Erickson, Schirmers, Penning and Creager finished second in the 200 medley relay to qualify for state.

After Erickson finished sixth in the 200 freestyle, Schirmers (third), Zinke (fourth) and Meinert (sixth) contended for state berths in the 200 individual medley.

Rossman (eighth), Ondracek (ninth) and Williams (10th) placed in the 50 freestyle while Penning tied for third to qualify for state in diving. Hoffman (11th) and Andersen (15th) also scored points in diving.

Penning finished third in the 100 butterfly, but topped the state cut time to qualify for state. Zinke was fourth and Graham finished 11th in that event.

In the 100 freestyle, Creager (fifth), Haas (ninth) and Rossman (11th) placed while Meinert (fourth) placed in the 500 freestyle.

Penning, Zinke, Meinert and Creager just missed qualifying in the 200 freestyle relay by placing third.

Erickson won the section title in the 100 backstroke while Ondracek finished fourth.

In the 100 breaststroke, Schirmers (fourth), Williams (fifth) and Haas (eighth) placed while Erickson, Zinke, Schirmers and Creager ended the meet by placing fourth in the 400 freestyle relay.

Erickson, Schirmers, Zinke, Meinert, Rossman, Creager, Ondracek, Haas and Williams received all-section honorable mention honors for reaching the finals in their events.

Also competing at the section meet were Hanson (23rd in the 200 individual medley and 19th in the 100 butterfly)), Kniss (22nd in the 50 freestyle and 18th in diving), Mackley (25th in the 500 freestyle and 25th in the 100 breaststroke), and Pederson (20th in the 100 backstroke).

"The section meet was one of those meets where everything went our way," said Fritze, whose team finished ahead of Fergus Falls (328 points) and Bemidji (308.50 points) to win the section title for the first time since 2005. "We had the element of surprise. We didn't think we could win it. Our goal was to finish in the top three. After preliminaries, we had a good chance to win it. We did everything we needed to do to get the kids in scoring position. Winning the section title validated all the hard work the girls put in this season."

Penning capped off her career by earning the team's Most Valuable honors and finishing second in total points with 347.50. Penning broke her own school record in the 100 butterfly with a 1:01.20 and moved up to the No. 2 spot in diving with 215.55 points.

Katherine Erickson shared the team's Most Dedicated/Hardest Worker award after leading the team in points with 365.25. Erickson climbed to the No. 2 spot in school history in the 100 backstroke with a 1:03.15 and the No. 7 spot in the 200 freestyle with a 2:07.27.

Creager finished third in points with 311.50 and moved up to the No. 7 spot in the 100 freestyle with a 57.18 and to the No. 9 spot in the 200 freestyle with a 2:08.99.

Zinke was fourth in points with 310.50 and moved up to the No. 3 spot in the 100 butterfly with a 1:04.04 and to the No. 7 spot in the 200 individual medley with a 2:26.28.

Schirmers tallied 274.50 points for the No. 5 spot and climbed to the No. 2 spot in the 100 breaststroke with a 1:11.88 and to the No. 4 position in the 200 individual medley with a 2:24.19.

Meinert was sixth with 268 points and moved up to the No. 4 spot in school history with a 5:40.79 in the 500 freestyle. Meinert shared the team's Most Dedicated/Hardest Worker award.

Ondracek finished seventh on the team with 250.50 points and holds the No. 6 spot in school history in the 100 backstroke with a 1:04.48.

Williams was eighth with 250 points and climbed to the No. 9 spot in the 100 breaststroke with a 1:14.44.

Haas also surpassed 200 points, finishing ninth on the team with 232 points.

Hanson rounded out the team's top-10 scoring list with 143 points while Rossman (141) and Graham (103) also surpassed 100 points.

Also scoring points on the varsity this season were Kniss (86.75), Hoffman (84), Andersen (82.50), Mackley (59.50), Pederson (46), Seri Erickson (28.50), Eystad (28.58), O'Hern (21.50), Lockrem (13.50) and Nichols (12.50).

Lockrem was named the Panthers' Most Improved while senior Nikki Knott, who missed the season with a shoulder injury, received the team's Spirit Award.

Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers have to replace the leadership of Penning, Hanson and Knott. But with 20 swimmers and divers returning with varsity experience, Fritze is looking for the Panthers to produce another successful season in 2010.

"Our seniors were a huge positive for this team. We're going to miss their leadership, but the future looks good," said Fritze. "We were ecstatic to win the section and send four swims to state this year, but we want more next year. Our expectations are going to be higher. The girls understand what it took to get this far, but they know we are not where we want to be. We won't surprise anyone next year. The girls know they are going to have to work harder if we're going to be better."