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Panthers seek repeat performance at state

Park Rapids' six state qualifiers -- (from left) Spencer Fritze, Zach Fritze, Marcus Benson, Matthew Benson, Zach Behrens and Thomas Williams -- were looking to cap off a successful boys swimming and diving season by bringing home medals from the Class A meet. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

After breaking five school records at the Section 5A meet Feb. 24 at Alexandria, the six members of the Park Rapids boys swimming and diving team were looking to duplicate those performances at the state Class A meet at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.

Seniors Matthew Benson and Zach Behrens, juniors Spencer Fritze and Zach Fritze, sophomore Marcus Benson and freshman Thomas Williams qualified for the state meet in six events, breaking school records in five of them.

Marcus Benson, Spencer Fritze, Behrens and Matthew Benson opened the section finals with a runner-up 1:39.52 in the 200-yard medley. Spencer Fritze took first in diving with 423.85 points. Matthew Benson qualified with a 49.48 for fifth place in the 100-yard freestyle. Spencer Fritze, Zach Fritze, Behrens and Matthew Benson took third in the 200-yard freestyle with a 1:30.65. Marcus Benson won the 100-yard backstroke in 54.09 while Williams advanced with a 56.68 to tie for fourth place with. Matthew Benson, Behrens, Marcus Benson and Spencer Fritze closed the meet by placing third in the 400-yard freestyle relay in 3:21.33.

The Panthers met the state-qualifying standard in all five swimming events as the top-three finishers automatically advanced to state. The top-four divers also qualified for the state meet, which began Thursday.

Relays look to break school records at state

Sacrificing individual success for team success paid off for the Panthers at the section meet.

Matthew Benson and Spencer Fritze had qualified for state in individual swimming events in previous years. Benson qualified in the 500 freestyle and Fritze was a state-qualifier in the 100 breaststroke in 2015. In 2016, Benson advanced in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle while Fritze competed at state in the 50 freestyle. Last season, Benson qualified in the 200 freestyle while Fritze returned in the 50 freestyle. Both also swam on the Panthers' state-qualifying 200 medley relay team in 2016 and last season and on the 400 freestyle relay team last season.

In order to score more points at the state meet, those two decided to give up an individual event and focus on trying to help all three relay advance to state.

That sacrifice helped the Panthers send all three relay teams to state for the first time since 2002.

"It wasn't too hard of a decision," said Fritze. "I decided to give up an individual event to help send more guys to state in a relay. We were thinking about it at the beginning of the year. We decided to see what we had and we decided we had a shot, so we decided to take a shot at it."

"At first I doubted it, but after prelims I had a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates," said Benson. "My main goal was to make it to state in four events and I thought it would be cool to get all three relays through. It was pretty cool breaking the school record in the 100 free and all three relays."

The medley relay started off a successful section meet with a runner-up time of 1:41.20 during the preliminaries. That was under the state-qualifying time of 1:43.16 and broke the school record of 1:42.10 set by Casimir Simonson, Fritze, Behrens and Benson last season. Alexandria took first in 1:40.46. Marcus Benson opened with a 25.99 split in the backstroke, Fritze went 27.13 in the breaststroke, Behrens clocked a 25.37 in the butterfly and Matthew Benson finished with a 22.71 in the freestyle.

In the finals, Marcus Benson led off with a 25.59, Fritze clocked a 27.30, Behrens went 24.61 and Matthew Benson closed with a 22.02 as the Panthers posted a 1:39.52 to break the school record and top the section record of 1:39.53 set by Sartell-St. Stephen last season. Unfortunately, Alexandria claimed the section record with a winning time of 1:38.05.

Matthew Benson and Fritze helped the 200 medley relay place 20th in 1:44.94 in 2016 and joined Behrens to finish 20th last year in 1:42.26. The Panthers entered this year's state meet with the No. 2 seed time behind Alexandria.

The Panthers also shined during prelims of the 200 freestyle relay as Spencer Fritze's 22.35, Zach Fritze's 23.35, Behrens' 23.04 and Matthew Benson's 22.18 led to a third-place time of 1:30.92. That was under the state-qualifying time of 1:31.18 and broke the school record of 1:31.80 set by Spencer Fritze, Behrens, Sam Eystad and Matthew Benson last season. Alexandria took first in 1:29.50 while Sartell was second in 1:30.35.

In the finals, the Panthers dropped their time to 1:30.65 as Spencer Fritze opened with a 22.35, Zach Fritze went 23.35, Behrens clocked a 23.04 and Matthew Benson closed with a 22.18. Alexandria was first with a 1:29.50 while Sartell took second with a 1:30.35. Park Rapids was seeded 13th entering state with Winona having the top time of 1:26.60.

The mission was completed in the 400 freestyle as Matthew Benson's 49.32, Behrens' 51.57, Marcus Benson's 51.42 and Spencer Fritze's 49.87 led to a third-place time of 3:22.18 during prelims. That time was ahead of the state-cut time of 3:23.50. The lead-off time of 49.32 by Matthew Benson broke the school record in the 100 freestyle of 49.57 set by Connor Smythe in 2014. Alexandria was first in 3:19.30 and Sartell was second in 3:21.59.

The places remained the same in the finals as Matthew Benson led off with a 49.07 to drop his school record, Behrens followed in 50.70. Marcus Benson clocked a 51.04 and Spencer Fritze anchored with a 50.52 for a 3:21.33, which broke the school record of 3:21.82 set by Clay Eberhart, Luke Berglund, Josh Winter and Jonah Winter in 2002. Alexandria won the section title in 3:14.19 while Sartell followed in 3:16.42. That time gave the Panthers the No. 12 seed entering state as Alexandria posted the fastest time.

"We definitely want to medal in the medley," said Matthew Benson. "Our main goal is to repeat what we did at the section finals and swim the second day. Hopefully we can break all three records again."

"I was pretty confident. After we made state cuts and were in the top-three in all three (after prelims), I was very confident," said Behrens. "Halfway through the season, we decided to try and get all three relays to state. I don't regret it for a second. Hopefully we can make it to the second day. That was our goal last year and we didn't accomplish that. It's not going to be easy, but I think we've got a good shot at making it to the second day in all three. We just have to do the same thing we did at sections. We're going to go all out and give it our best."

"We were pretty confident we'd get under state cut in all three. It was a team effort. We all swam to the best of our abilities and pulled it out," said Spencer Fritze. "Last year we were close. This year our times are faster and hopefully we'll be swimming on the second day. We all have to get a little faster. I think we can do it."

"I knew if we put the hammer down we'd go. I felt really good after prelims. I knew all we had to do was come back and do it again," said Marcus Benson. "I want to make it to the championship heat and medal in the medley and I hope we can make it to the second day in the 400 (relay). I'm hoping we can go faster and break both records again."

"I was pretty confident. We knew what we had to do and what times we needed and we got down to it. I knew we would (qualify) the second day after taking third with safe starts the first day. To get the school record was beyond what I expected," said Zach Fritze, who qualified for his state meet. "I feel good about our chances (of advancing to the finals). We've got to get faster starts and clean everything up. If we do that, I think we'll move up."

Fritze seeks another state medal in diving

Spencer Fritze had plenty of reasons to feel confident about placing in diving at this year's state meet.

Fritze finished 10th with 345.00 points in his state debut in 2015 and followed by placing 13th with 347.80 points in 2016 and earning all-state honors last season by placing seventh with 340.25 points.

After winning the section title and being named Section 5A Diver of the Year, Fritze is optimistic about repeating as an all-state diver.

At the section meet, Fritze finished first after the first five dives with 200.05 points and still held the lead after the semifinal round of three more dives with 303.65 points. Bemidji's Cameron Munter was second after the preliminary round with 192.60 points and second after the semifinals with 300.85 points.

During finals, Fritze nailed his third and final dive to finish with 423.85 points while Fergus Falls' Caleb Neubauer climbed into second place with 423.05 points and Munter settled for third place with 409.65 points.

"I thought I had a good chance I'd make it back to state. Going into the finals, I was leading by 3 points, so I felt pretty confident," said Fritze, who holds the school record with a 460.20 for 11 dives. "Now I'm going to try and get back on the podium again."

Matthew Benson qualifies in different freestyle race

Prior to this season, Matthew Benson used record-breaking efforts to qualify for state in the 200 and 500 freestyles.

The Park Rapids senior used a record-breaking performance to qualify for state in the 100 freestyle for the first time.

Benson put himself in position to qualify by placing fourth during preliminaries with a 49.69. That just missed the state-cut time of 49.52 and trailed the cut times clocked by the Sartell trio of Dylan Plemel (48.75), Garrit VanSurksum (49.44) and Cooper Larson (49.48).

In the finals, Benson dropped a spot, but also dropped his time to advance to state. Benson, who officially broke the school record leading off the 400 freestyle relay, also topped the school record with a 49.48 for fifth place. Alexandria's Patrick Chromey won the section title in 47.53 while Plemel (48.44), VanSurksum (49.01) and Larson (49.33) followed as five swimmers qualified for state.

"I had a pretty good time earlier this season and proved to myself that I could do it, so I decided to try it," said Benson about switching from the longer freestyle races to the 100. "I was close to making the state-cut time (during preliminaries) and finished fourth, so I knew I had to get the state-cut time in the finals. I knew I couldn't rely on place. Getting the school record leading off the 400 relay gave me a lot of confidence. I didn't break my record, but I was happy with fifth place and qualifying for state."

Benson, who holds the school records in the 200 freestyle (1:49.35) and 500 freestyle (4:58.75), was looking to improve on his No. 20 seed and advance to the finals. Winona's Jack Herczeg has the top qualifying time of 47.24.

"I'm hoping to go under 49," said Benson. "There are some minor corrections I can make. If I can get a 47 or a 48 the first day, that would set me up pretty good to make it to the second day and possibly medal."

Marcus Benson, Williams eye finals in backstroke

Being the only two swimmers to get under the state-cut time during preliminaries put Marcus Benson and Williams in perfect position to qualify for state in the 100 backstroke.

Benson clocked a 55.02 and Williams followed in 56.81 to lead the pack during prelims. That 1-2 showing gave the two Park Rapids swimmers plenty of confidence entering the finals.

Both swimmers cut time in the finals with Benson winning the section title in 54.09 to break his own school record and Williams tying for fourth place with a 56.68 to advance. Fergus Falls' Will Prody was second in 55.99, Alexandria's Zach Dummer was third in 56.37 and Sartell's Brannon Bjork tied Williams for fourth place with a 56.68 as five swimmers met the qualifying time.

"I really wanted to be the section champ," said Benson. "I was pretty confident I could make it (to state) with how I was seeded. I knew if I had another good time like I had in prelims that I'd go back to state."

"I felt confident I could do it," said Williams. "After prelims, I had a lot of confidence I could do it again. I was focused on getting the state-cut time in the finals."

Benson, who broke the school record by placing 11th at last year's state meet with a 54.94, was seeded fourth while Williams was seeded 11th entering state. Breck/Blake's Anderson Breazeale had the top time of 51.82.

"I'm really happy to go down there," said Williams about his state debut. "I hope to make it to Day 2. That's what I'm shooting for. I really want to swim on Saturday. If I can go faster than I did in the (section) finals, I should make it to Day 2."

"I'm hoping to move up (from last year's 11th-place finish) and medal," said Benson. "I'm seeded fourth, but I hope to finish in the top 3."