Duluth East senior Ryan Zelen heads to his final Class AA state swimming and diving meet this week seeded fourth in both the 50-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly. During practice Tuesday, Zelen's coach, Sandy Verry - speaking by phone - was asked of the best possible outcome for his speedster.
Verry was looking at top times for the 50 free. Edina's Peter Larson is seeded first at 20.32 seconds, followed by defending champ Andrew Trepanier of Lakeville North at 20.53. Eden Prairie's Soren Dunn and Zelen are third and fourth, respectively, with season-bests of 21.36 and 21.37 seconds.
In an all-out sprint like the 50 free, a one-second difference is an eternity. That must have been what Verry was thinking when he said Zelen realistically could place as high as third. Zelen was nearby, and when Verry followed up with, "It's going to be tough to beat those two (Larson and Trepanier)," the coach didn't come back on the phone for 23 seconds.
The only sound on the other end was muffled conversation and a few chuckles. Presumably, it was Zelen objecting. He knows what the numbers say, but Zelen isn't resigning himself to accept a third- or fourth-place showing before even getting his feet wet.
"The seed times are one thing, but obviously anything can happen once you're down there. All eight guys who are going to be in that 'A' final are going to be fast, and I think it's anyone's race, really," he said. "I'm just going to show up and do my best, and see where I end up."
The state meet runs Thursday through Saturday at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the University of Minnesota campus. This is Zelen's fourth time qualifying and, much like last year, it was all but a foregone conclusion that the future Wisconsin Badger would make it to Minneapolis.
He was third in the 50 free and fifth in the 100 free as a junior.
In addition to the two solo events, Zelen will compete with the Duluth team's 200 and 400 freestyle relays. Overall, seven swimmers from the East-Denfeld co-op qualified for state, the result of a strong performance at last weekend's Section 7AA meet. Duluth amassed 366 points to finish second behind Forest Lake (400).
Denfeld sophomore Joe Rudd will compete in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke, while East eighth-grader Grant Wodny advanced in the 200 free and 500 free, plus the 200 and 400 freestyle relays. Finn Braaten (200), Luke Sailstad (200, 400) and Julien Yung (400) also are on the relays.
For the versatile Zelen, this weekend marks the conclusion to a dazzling prep career. Along the way, he's set several school, pool and meet records.
"He's meant everything to this team," Verry said. "He's obviously one of our fastest guys, but not only that, his attitude and his leadership as a captain has been ... cripes, you can't ask for a better kid."
Zelen will break with family tradition and swim for the Badgers in college, though he didn't have a choice. Both his parents, Dan and Camille, swam at North Dakota, as did Zelen's older brother, Tyler. But the school cut the program after Tyler's sophomore season, so he transferred to Wisconsin.
Zelen's season-long focus has been the state meet. His training program was built to peak this weekend, not last. He admits there's a little more pressure this time around as he tries to go out with a splash.
"A little bit, yeah, but there's always going to be some pressure on a stage like this," Zelen said. "I think most of it's just excitement this year. I've been looking forward to it for a long time."
Northland State Qualifiers
(With seed times)
200-yard freestyle - Grant Wodny, Duluth, 1:45.31; 200 individual medley - Joe Rudd, Duluth, 2:00.61; 50 freestyle - Ryan Zelen, Duluth, 21.37; 100 butterfly - Zelen, 50.18; 500 freestyle - Wodny, 4:50.09; 200 freestyle relay - Duluth, 1:29.35; 100 breaststroke - Rudd, 59.15; 400 freestyle relay - Duluth, 3:15.63.
200 medley relay - Hibbing, 1:40.40; Chisholm, 1:42.78; Eveleth-Gilbert, 1:44.21; 200 freestyle - Andrew Bird, Virginia, 1:52.19; Michael Fitch, Grand Rapids, 1:54.33; Cade Klimek, Chisholm, 1:55.08; 200 individual medley - William Stenson, Hibbing, 2:02.60; Jake Jacobson, Grand Rapids, 2:07.76; Austin Morrissey, Grand Rapids, 2:09.20; 50 freestyle - Joe Iozzo, Hibbing, 22.66; Mark Borland, Hibbing, 22.73; 1-meter diving - Riley Nater, Hibbing; Alex Nater, Grand Rapids; 100 butterfly - Stenson, 52.57; Iozzo, 54.19; Jacob Shimmin, Mesabi East, 59.86; 100 freestyle - Bird, 49.82; Hoppe, 50.61; Ben Bartholomew, Grand Rapids, 50.81; 500 freestyle - Fitch, 5:10.28; Cameron Johnson, Virginia, 5:15.02; Harrison Logan, Virginia, 5:17.79; 200 freestyle relay - Hibbing, 1:30.83; Chisholm, 1:32.36; Virginia, 1:33.79; 100 backstroke - Logan Schroder, Mesabi East, 56.46; Nick Jordan, Chisholm, 58.20; 100 breaststroke - Jacobson, 1:02.08; Jack Bryan, Chisholm, 1:03.39; Robbie Licari, Eveleth-Gilbert, 1:03.53; 400 freestyle relay - Hibbing, 3:25.44; Grand Rapids, 3:26.28; Chisholm, 3:26.37.