Wolverines smash expectations for 2021 season

Pictured (l-r) are Rock Ridge swimmers that competed last month at the state meet: Leighton Ongalo, Aiden Hecimovich, Owen Engel, Andrew Bird, Gunnar George, Leif Sundquist, Nate Spiering and Cam Johnson.

VIRGINIA — The Rock Ridge boys’ swimming team had high expectations for the 2020-21 season after winning the Section 6A title the year before as Virginia/Eveleth-Gilbert.

The Wolverines did that and more as they won their first section title ever as Rock Ridge and had an impressive showing at state.

Head coach Dan Boelk had a feeling his team would excel going into the 2020-21 campaign.

“I think we all did. The coaching staff and the swimmers and divers’’ since the team lost only two swimmers to graduation. “We were still pretty deep.’’

Rock Ridge went on to finish seventh out of 30 teams scoring points at the state meet and had six of its eight swimmers earn medalist honors (top eight).

“That was huge for two little programs that went together,’’ Boelk said. “It made them feel good about themselves.’’

The head coach got a glimpse of what his team could do at the section meet as they won the team title over Hibbing, 488-346.5

The Wolverines got first place finishes in the 200 and 500 freestyle with Cameron Johnson, who set two new Section 6A records; Gunnar George in the 50 freestyle; and George, Owen Engel, Andrew Bird and Leif Sundquist in the 400 freestyle relay, another new Section 6A record.

Other Rock Ridge state qualifiers included: Engel, Aiden Hecimovich, Leighton Ongalo and Nathan Spiering in the 200 medley relay; Spiering in the 50 freestyle; Sundquist and Bird in the 200 freestyle; Engel in the 200 individual medley; George in the 100 butterfly; Sundquist and Bird in the 100 freestyle; George, Bird, Spiering and Sundquist in the 200 freestyle relay. Overall, 23 out of 34 entrants made top eight at sections.

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The times were great, but Boelk was thinking they could do even better at state, because that’s where they set their workouts to peak at.

“A lot of them wanted to peak out at state’’ after last year’s performance down there, he said. “I really got excited for the state meet’’ and the opportunity to swim even faster.

George, Engel, Bird, Sundquist, Nathan Spiering and Johnson would go on to earn medalist honors at state.

Asked about George, Boelk said, “He had an awesome season. He’s kind of like the energizer rabbit.’’ For a freshman to medal at state is amazing, he said. “I’m kind of looking forward to the next few years with him.’’

Engel, one of the team captains, is a ‘’silent leader’’ kind of a kid. Boelk said he is the first one in the pool and the last one out.

“The four seniors we had were all good role models.’’

Bird, who helped RR to fourth at state in the 400 freestyle relay, is the “comedian of the bunch,’’ said Boelk. When practice got hard, he’d try to get the coaches distracted and talking about something else, he said with a laugh.

About Sundquist, Boelk said, “He’s wide open’’ even when the coaches focus on technique. “He puts it all out on the line when it comes time to race.’’ Junior Sundquist, who, was always pushing the older guys, “had a heck of a state meet as well.’’

Spiering willingly accepted swimming the breaststroke and also loves doing the relays. Boelk loved his overall unselfishness. “My hat goes off to the whole team. I’ve never coached a team that’s been so unselfish.’’

Johnson was a bit “bummed out’’ to get bumped off the 400 freestyle relay, “but he regrouped and stepped up and did better in his individual events.’’ Boelk added he was the first Virginia student to break five minutes in the 500 freestyle, except for a previous foreign exchange student. “Now he’s walking out being the fastest there’s ever been.’’

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Boelk was amazed at how well his swimmers did considering the COVID-19 pandemic put the season in jeopardy and put some extra weight on their shoulders.

“That was probably the hardest part of the whole year.’’

However, the Wolverines policed themselves throughout the year and at state, when the restrictions were even tighter and no parents or spectators were allowed.

How big was it that Rock Ridge did so well at state?

“I think it’s huge,’’ Boelk said. “Success kinds of breeds success that way’’ because others will try and work hard now. “We hope we’re starting a tradition with the Rock Ridge program’’ of being able to compete at the state level, both individually and as a team.

What does it say that a team/program has six All-State swimmers out of the eight that made it there?

“That’s the best medal count I’ve ever had as a swim coach.’’

Looking back at how all sports teams navigated the pandemic, “I think we were pretty fortunate to get it done,’’ Boelk said. “It was a total team effort’’ from the swimmers and parents to coaches, managers and administration. “Everybody was unselfish and worked toward the big picture at the end.’’

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