According to Megan Rykhus, the theme for the Park Rapids boys swimming and diving team this season is to persevere.

“Perseverance will be important in regards to different things this season. In the past it might have been morning practices, tough sets and new events. This season those are still present, but the changes such as in-person to hybrid learning to distance learning, add in guidelines with masks, social distancing and other COVID-related expectations will be a factor they haven't had to compete with before,” said Rykhus, who begins her second season as the Panthers’ head coach. “We were lucky to have finished our season last year before things drastically changed in late March. Every athlete I have seen has done an amazing job with these guidelines and I expect the boys to follow suit.”

The Panthers have 10 returning letterwinners in seniors Elliott Nichols and Jake Zinniel; sophomores Cameron Runyan, Jordan Odor, Isaac Zinniel, Malachi Martin, Matthew Lichter and Nicholas Graham; freshman Josh David; and eighth grader Leo Kaufenberg. Sophomore Danny Hoyt and eighth grader Josiah Smee also return with some varsity experience.

Graduation leaves the Panthers without two key swimmers: Marcus Benson and Dominik Backmann. Benson, who is swimming at South Dakota State University, capped off his high school career with a runner-up finish in the 100-yard backstroke and a fifth-place showing in the 200-yard individual medley by clocking school record times at the state Class A meet. In addition to breaking those two school records, the Section 5A Swimmer of the Year broke the school and pool record in the 200 freestyle, moved up to the No. 2 spot in the 100 butterfly, the No. 2 spot in the 100 freestyle, the No. 6 spot in the 50 freestyle and the No. 10 spot in the 500 freestyle (5:23.65) on the school’s all-time list while compiling 297 points last season. Backmann scored 108 points while swimming the 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle.

Rykhus will be counting on her returning swimmers, who all peaked at the end of last season, to step up and fill those gaps this season.

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A year ago, the Panthers went 3-4 in dual meets, finished second at the Mid-State Conference meet, placed fifth at the Section 5A meet, and sent two individuals to the state Class A meet. Runyan was Park Rapids’ other state qualifier. Runyan qualified for his first state meet by placing fourth in diving at the Section 5A meet and capped off the season by placing 23rd in his state debut.

Runyan was also one of the Panthers’ six champions at the conference meet. Benson won the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke; Odor took first in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle; Runyan led the pack in diving; and Odor, Runyan, Martin and Jake Zinniel won the 400 freestyle relay as Park Rapids compiled 368 points to trail Detroit Lakes’ 400 points at the Mid-State meet.

Finishing second to earn all-conference honorable mention honors were Jake Zinniel in the 100 breaststroke; Isaac Zinniel, Jake Zinniel, Benson and Runyan in the 200 medley relay; and Benson, Isaac Zinniel, Runyan and Odor in the 200 freestyle relay. Isaac Zinniel (in the 200 individual medley and the 100 backstroke), Jake Zinniel (in the 100 freestyle) and Backmann (in the 500 freestyle) also earned all-conference honorable mention honors by placing third.

The Panthers placed fifth at the 10-team Section 5A meet with 179 points as Sartell-St. Stephen claimed the team title with 491 points. Alexandria (484), Melrose/Sauk Centre (305) and Bemidji (231) followed.

Benson qualified for the state Class A meet by winning the 200 individual medley and the 100 backstroke (by breaking the section record) while Runyan advanced by claiming the final spot in diving to lead the Panthers at the section meet. Also placing in the finals at the section meet were Benson, Jake Zinniel, Nichols and Runyan in the 200 medley relay (fifth); Isaac Zinniel, Nichols, Runyan and Odor in the 200 freestyle relay (sixth); Odor, Runyan, Nichols and Benson in the 400 freestyle relay (sixth); Nichols in the 100 butterfly (sixth); and Odor in the 500 freestyle (sixth).

Swimming in the consolation finals were Odor (ninth in the 200 freestyle), Isaac Zinniel (10th in the 100 backstroke) and Jake Zinniel (15th in the 100 breaststroke). The other section competitors were Isaac Zinniel (17th in the 200 individual medley), Jake Zinniel (23rd in the 100 freestyle) and Backmann (19th in the 500 freestyle and 24th in the 200 freestyle).

Runyan finished second in points with 289 and moved up to the No. 8 spot in school history for 11 dives. Odor followed with 287 points while taking over the No. 6 spot in the 200 freestyle and the No. 7 spot in the 500 freestyle. Isaac Zinniel compiled 232.50 points while Nichols finished with 232 points and took over the No. 10 spot in the 100 butterfly. Jake Zinniel had 201 points.

Also scoring at least 50 points last season were Martin (93.50), Kaufenberg (82.50), Lichter (81.50), David (70.50) and Graham (65). Smee (39.50) and Hoyt (21) also contributed points on the varsity last season.

“We have a lot of returning letterwinners and some who were very close last year to earning letters. With a smaller team, there is a lot of room to swim around and show their flexibility within different events,” said Rykhus, who will be assisted by Sarah Heise. “We graduated two strong swimmers and their leadership and ability will be missed this year. However, those are some spots that swimmers will need to step up in and fill. It's easy to get comfortable in the events you are used to swimming, but we are looking for swimmers who are willing to swim any event, even if it means pushing outside their comfort zone.”

Seventh grader Carter Schiller rounds out this year’s roster. Rykhus is hoping some more swimmers and divers will join the team as the Panthers will be limited to only dual meets in preparing for the section meet.

“We have a young team where every athlete's role might be different than they have been in the past and I believe they will rise up to that challenge,” said Rykhus. “As always, the teams in our section are competitive and have great returning letterwinners as well that we look forward to swimming against. Last year the boys worked hard and their section meet showed that. I am looking for that same drive this year even with the changes made so far to the season. We are very thankful we have a season and are excited to be back in the water.”

SEASON SCHEDULE
Jan. 19 - vs. Detroit Lakes, 6 p.m. Jan. 26 - at Thief River Falls, 5:30 p.m. Jan. 28 - at Detroit Lakes, 6 p.m.
Feb. 2 - vs. Fergus Falls, 6 p.m. Feb. 4 - vs. Perham, 6 p.m. Feb. 9 - at Fergus Falls, 6 p.m. Feb. 11 - vs. Morris, 6 p.m. Feb. 16 - vs. Thief River Falls, 6 p.m. Feb. 18 - vs. Perham, 6 p.m. Feb. 23 - vs. Melrose/Sauk Centre at Sauk Centre, 6 p.m.