by Jason Olson
Anoka returned to the Class AA State boys’ swimming and diving meet after the team won five events en route to the Section 7AA title. Forest Lake (325) was runner-up followed by an impressive surge by Andover (292) to finish third and Blaine (271) was fourth.
Heading into sections Anoka coach John Jacobson was nervous because a majority of the team was recovering from cold-like symptoms and hadn’t fully recovered its strength to swim fast.
“It was really one of those deals where we’ll just wait and see,” Jacobson said as times weren’t dropping like he would typically see with a normal taper. “We had a few guys still coughing last week. A couple of times didn’t drop for that reason.
“It’s about your timing to drop the yards and to get that feel for the water. I was really nervous about it because they worked so hard for it. A lot of these kids practice from 5 to 7 a.m. then 3:15 to 5:15 [p.m.] two to three times a week doing a lot of yards knowing it will pay off in the end [in the form of a spot in the state meet].”
Jacobson knew they would get the best effort from the rest of the section to knock them off the top of the podium.
“It was fun to see the kids step up because they had a lot of targets on their backs,” Jacobson said about the pressure of extending the consecutive section titles streak to five. “There were people who wanted to beat us really bad and we had a good talk before the finals and they stepped it up and made us really proud.”
Anoka standout sophomore Cole Birklid won the 200-yard freestyle and 500 free. He also anchored the winning 400 and 200 free relays while earning Section Swimmer of the Year honors.
“He came up to me after the meet and was really honored because it’s usually an honor for a senior,” Jacobson said.
Birklid swam a full 7,000 yards during practice the night before, he said.
The 200 free relay team edged Cambridge-Isanti by 0.22 for the win with the foursome of Josh Gerick, Travis Weight, Matt Hedman and Birklid. The Tornadoes’ 400 free relay team of Gerick, Matt Hedman, Thacker and Birklid won by 1.37 over Andover, who competed with the team of Josh Kemp, Jack Rodman, Brady Malecha and Nick Weast.
Anoka’s 200 medley relay not only won the opening event by nearly two seconds, but set a new meet record of 1:40.72 (Duluth East set the previous time of 1:40.79 last season). Tornadoes senior Jake Thacker led off with a personal best split time followed by Taylor Dubois with a strong breaststroke leg followed by seniors Nick Hedman and Alex Kividera.
Anoka defeated Andover by 1.06 to win the last event of the afternoon, the 400 free relay.
Gerick (56.50) and Mike Rosier (57.17) finished second and third in the 100 fly behind Duluth East’s Jack Malban and no one qualified under the state time.
Birklid outraced teammate Matt Hedman to win the 500 free. Hedman picked up a section victory in the 200 individual medley, edging Duluth East’s Joe Vecchi 2:01.41 to 2:01.45 and brother Nick Hedman, who finished third in 2:05.05.
Birklid won the 200 free in a comfortable state qualifying time of 1:46.06, which was nearly five seconds ahead of Cambridge-Isanti’s runner-up and Anoka teammate Gerick, who placed third in the event.
The scariest part of Birklid’s success was that he began to taper Feb. 27.
Normally, swimmers start backing off the intensity of practices to conserve energy for the state meet two or three weeks in advance of state. Birklid is eyeing a spot at junior nationals in Florida which is mid-March. The Great Wolf Swim Club member already qualified for nationals in the 500 free, which he believes to be his strongest event.
As for Minnesota’s elite, he’s among the best with a season best time of 4:39, four seconds off the best time this season by a Mounds View swimmer.
Birklid won the section 500 free race in 4:48.04, more than four seconds ahead of freshman teammate Matt Hedman, who also clocked in under the state qualifying time in 4:52.15.
Jacobson said the strategy for Birklid was to conserve his energy through the first half so he had consistent lap times. “Cole was cruising so well, he could’ve gone even faster but both him and Matt had to jump into the next event [200 free relay],” Jacobson said. “I knew Matt really wanted to beat Cole and Matt pushed him in the second half.”
This is Birklid’s first taste of swimming for his high school and he enjoys the nuances that come along with swimming with his classmates.
“It’s way more intense than club [swimming] and a lot more team oriented,” he said as team points come into play at the state club meet only. “We don’t do cheers at all so that was something new for me. I thought it was really nice to have that [team] atmosphere.”
Chants before and after each meet serve multiple purposes to get the team pumped up before the meet and to wrap-up the day or event with one more cheer.
Another team-bonding experience comes in the form of pasta parties.
“It’s really nice to be honest,” Birklid said about gathering at a teammate’s house for a pasta dinner before a big meet.
Birklid is familiar with the University of Minnesota pool, where the state meet takes place, and he really enjoys it. “It’s a really nice pool and it’s the atmosphere mostly,” he said. It also is really cold which means it’s fast. The [starting] blocks are well put up and a lot of other stuff like the gutters hold the waves [so the pool is very smooth].”
Although Birklid’s father, Scott, is on the Tornadoes coaching staff, primarily working with the junior varsity swimmers, he doesn’t critique his son’s performances. “He’s never coached me before and he sits up in the stands and stays out of it,” the younger Birklid said, although his father coached the varsity team before Jacobson took over.
Scott missed out on sections because of a pre-scheduled high school trek he led to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.
Andover’s standout season continues
“All I can say is that this year’s Andover team made history,” first year Andover coach Pete Crawford said in response to his thoughts on the Huskies’ performance at sections in which the team broke seven program records (out of 12 events).
Its third-place team finish is a new program high as well.
“With this being my first season coaching the Andover boys, this team is and will always be a special team for me,” Crawford said. “Being that I was the third coach in four years, I was fortunate to have some very talented and hard working boys. It truly has been a special year for Andover swim and dive.”
Andover sophomore Jack Rodman gave the program its first-ever section champion as he won the 100 backstroke in 57.00 seconds in the finals, which was 1.73 seconds faster than his preliminary time and 0.29 ahead of Anoka runner-up Jack Thacker.
Andover will also send its first relay team to compete at state. The Huskies’ 400 free relay team of John Kemp, Rodman, Brady Malecha and Weast finished second in 3:22.11, only behind Anoka’s winning time of 3:21.05.
Another notable mark for the squad was helping girls’ and boys’ assistant coach Marsha Ford earn Section 7AA Assistant Coach of the Year honors.
Divers among the state’s best again
Blaine diver Sean Leverton captured the section title with 453.50 points, 84.35 points ahead of Anoka’s Brent Verke and Coon Rapids third-place finisher John Dejong who had 346.15 points.
Blaine’s Austin Bongers won the 100 free and was second in the 50 free to qualify for state, his first trip to the Class AA state meet.
“Austin’s a great kid. He has a tremendous work ethic and a great attitude,” Bengals coach Rory Coplan said. “Physically, he’s tall and lengthy, he has a great feel for the water and is very strong.”
Bongers led from the start of the 100 free finals and didn’t look back. “He had a half-body length lead off the last turn and [Duluth East’s third-place finisher] Derek Jones made a great push at about the 10-yard mark; both were running out of gas.”
Andover’s Nick Weast edged Jones at the wall to finish runner-up in 49.59 to 49.97.
Coplan said the talk before the finals revolved around having the heart and wanting to win more than the next guy.
“Austin isn’t the type to be loud and in your face, but he will do everything to beat you,” he said. “Honestly, not a huge surprise for us. He has been touching guys out at the finish all season.”
Leverton’s continued success on the board has helped him be the odds-on favorite to win a state title since the start of the season.
“He has consistently beaten them in competition by 30 to 60 points and he owns the highest score in the state by about 50 points,” Coplan said. “I know he and [diving coach] Jody [Cullen] will tweak some minor things for state. Sean is an ice-cold competitor. He is focused and determined.”
Cullen has produced many elite-level divers from the Blaine program, but a state title has eluded him for the last 20 years.
“And he has been so close a handful of years,” Coplan said. “This year looks like it will happen.”
Blaine had a number of top eight finishes including senior Kyle Kuecker with sixth-place finishes in the 200 and 100 frees; Tanner Ledin was sixth in the 200 medley and seventh in the 100 breaststroke; Mazen Hammad was eighth in the 100 fly; Alex Polansky was fifth in the 100 back and Trenton Pittman was seventh in diving.