Coming off Section 8-2A True Team and Section 8-2A championships, the Brainerd Warriors return five performers who were major point-scorers last season.
But the challenge for head coach John Zemke and his staff is to fill in around that nucleus and replace graduates like Michael Bylander, Gunnar Niemeyer and Preston Owen who combined to win six section titles on their way to the state meet. The trio accounted for 1,268 team points.
How will Brainerd replace that horsepower?
"You don't," Zemke said. "Those seniors last year accounted for so many of our points. We have good kids coming back that scored points at the section meet, but as far as trying to replace those seniors that's probably not going to be possible."
Replacing that senior delegation changes the Warriors' mindset early in the season.
"Last year going in, we knew we had a great chance to win the section championship which we did," Zemke said. "This year, with some of the young kids, we're not really sure where we stand so far.
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Boys Swimming and Diving
- Head coach: John Zemke, 22nd season
- Career record: 150-21-1 (.877)
- 2017-18 record: CLC 6-1, overall 7-1, second in CLC, won Section 8-2A
- Returning state meet participants: Griffin Blegen
- Assistant coaches: Carl Schirmer, Owen Trout (diving)
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"In the conference, Sauk Rapids is a very good team. Sartell is always strong. They have a very good team. Alexandria is one of the top teams. Obviously, we will know a lot more after the first few meets where we're at, but it's kind of wait and see."
Griffin Blegen is the only returning state entrant. Last year, he was on the section championship 200 medley and 200 free relays and placed third in the 100 freestyle. At state, he was on the sixth-place 200 free relay, the ninth-place 200 medley relay and finished 24th in the 100 free.
Blegen is the top point scorer returning. He provided 344.5 points, almost 60 points ahead of the next-closest Warrior. He will swim the 50 and 100 freestyles and anchor two relays this season.
"We're looking for leadership out of him," Zemke said. "He's going to have to be one of the seniors that's going to try to carry the team. He has a lot of experience. He's a big-meet swimmer. Any time we get into a big meet, he always performs very well.
"We're looking forward to big things out of him. Hopefully, he will finish his senior year and swimming career at Brainerd on a high note which I'm sure he will."
Senior Andy Dillon is the second-leading point scorer (281) returning from last season. He's proficient in the backstroke, individual medley and butterfly. At the section meet, he finished fifth in the backstroke and sixth in the IM.
"Andy and Griffin swam in quite a few meets over the summer," Zemke said. "Andy spent a lot of time swimming twice a day all summer and competed in a number of different meets.
"So far in practice, (Dillon and Blegen), along with some others, have looked fantastic.
It's almost like they're in midseason form right now. We need Andy to step up again like he did last year. He's just getting better and better every year. We need him to perform well this year in order to accomplish some things we want to get done."
Another senior, Riley Backstrom, was the fourth-highest returning point scorer with 190. He will primarily swim sprint races.
"He also could be on a couple different relays," Zemke said. "Riley does a great job in sprint events, primarily freestyle. We can swim him in different events, but the freestyle events are definitely his main ones."
Sophomore Tristan Dawson is the third-leading point scorer with 232. At the section, he finished sixth in the backstroke and ninth in the butterfly.
"Tristan dedicated himself to being a full-time swimmer as a ninth-grader," Zemke said. "He also had a good summer training with us. He's a kid who can swim anything. We don't know what events we're going to put him into yet. He possibly could be on two relays at the section meet. He can swim any event that we need him in."
Junior Cody Evans placed fifth in the section breaststroke last winter.
"Hopefully Cody can move up in the breaststroke at the section meet," Zemke said. "He swam very well at the end of the year. He's very consistent and has a very good stroke in that event. Hopefully, he can continue to be one of the successful kids that have swum the breaststroke for us over the years."
Brainerd has 24 underclassmen on a roster that totals 31 swimmers and divers.
"That's a positive," Zemke said, "and we've got strong numbers on our middle school team. We feel good about our numbers especially looking to the future with a brand new pool going to be built. That's only going to help more and more as kids walk into it and see what that's all about. I think our numbers will continue to climb which is a good thing."
In the section, Zemke expects perennial powerhouses like Maple Grove and St. Michael-Albertville to be the top two teams.
Seniors: Andy Dillon, Ethan Hebert, Griffin Blegen, Jacob VanRisseghem, Jaret Embertson, John Barr, Riley Backstrom
Juniors: Blake Cummings (diver), Cody Evans, Connor Lund, Cruz Lemmerhirt (diver), Dylan Paulson, Izaac Herrlich (diver), Luke Wilhelm, Tennyson Kelm
Sophomores: Tristan Dawson, Alexander Christenson, Cade Young, Javan Hemsworth
Freshmen: Lance Zemke, Cade Rosenwald, Baden Bastien, Thomas Ruhl, Rob Orsburn, Tyler LaPorte, Ethan Paulson, Josh Eberts, David Rollin (diver), Jalen Emslander (diver), William Middagh (diver)
Eighth-graders: Mason Kuepers, Parker Tatge
Thursday, Dec 6, Bemidji 6 p.m.
Dec 13, Fergus Falls 6 p.m.
Dec 20, Sauk Rapids-Rice 6 p.m.
Dec 27, Brainerd Invitational noon
Jan 3, at Alexandria 6 p.m.
Jan 5, at Fargo West Invitational 10 a.m.
Jan 10, St. Cloud Tech 6 p.m.
Jan 15, at Willmar 6 p.m.
Jan 19, Section 8-2A True Team at St. Cloud Tech 1 p.m.
Jan 24, Sartell 6 p.m.
Jan 31, vs Rocori/Apollo at St. Cloud 6 p.m.
Feb 9, Central Lakes Conference Championship at Alexandria 10 a.m.
Feb 22, Section 8-2A at St. Cloud Tech 5 p.m.
Feb 23, Section 8-2A at St. Cloud Tech 11 a.m.