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Prep boys swimming: Rock Ridge merger going swimmingly

Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert program stronger now after combining forces.

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Andrew Bird (left) and Gunnar George are members of the Rock Ridge swim team, created by the combination of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert programs. Bird is a Virginia senior while George is an Eveleth-Gilbert freshman. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
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High school mergers often turn out like messy divorces: Neither side is happy with the arrangements and the kids are the ones who get hurt.

But the Rock Ridge boys swimming and diving team is designing the blueprint for future mergers — in and out of the pool.

In the second season since the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert swim programs combined, the Wolverines already have established themselves as the team to beat in Section 6A and have provided a model of how to merge two former rivals. A new school is expected to be completed by fall 2022.

“I’m going to be 100% honest — when we merged with them, they had all of our missing pieces and that’s why we’ve become such a successful program,” Virginia senior Andrew Bird said. “Their program was almost off the grid (near elimination), but those missing pieces made our program as strong as it is. Now we click, and everything’s perfect.”

Eveleth-Gilbert freshman Gunnar George filled in some of those missing pieces in the sprint freestyles, the 100-yard butterfly and the medley relay. He has posted the second-best times in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles in the Northland.

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“The next few years he is going to dominate the section and place well at state,” Virginia senior Owen Engel said. “I’m excited to see where that goes.”

Swimmers say both sides have accepted the other, meaning the only friction is that caused by waves in the pool.

“It’s been great. Both schools work really well together and everything is all right,” the 15-year-old George said. “We were rivals, but everyone is friends on social media now.”

In the next 18 months, all the various Blue Devils and Golden Bears teams will be consolidated.

“Everybody on the team gets along well, and I think people will tell the other teams, ‘Hey, this is working really well for the swim team and it will probably work well for others,’ ” Engel said. “I think it will go really well.”

As has this shortened season for the Wolverines. The return of Bird, who won the 100 and 200 freestyles at the 2020 section meet and anchors the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, bodes well for a repeat team title. But the added component of Eveleth-Gilbert’s youthful exuberance might have been the key ingredient needed.

“Your best competition is who you practice with every day,” coach Dan Boelk said. “Two years ago, before we combined, Eveleth only had a handful and we had a handful (of swimmers). We could never compete against a big team like (Grand) Rapids or Hibbing. Now when we mix the two (schools) together, we can give those bigger schools a run for their money. The kids are more upbeat that way.”

As George said: “I feel like we brought aces that they needed and they brought aces that we needed.”

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Those aces could give Rock Ridge a winning hand at the Section 6A meet, which begins Thursday with 1-meter diving and concludes Saturday at Hibbing and Grand Rapids. Teams will be broken up into two groups of four to swim at separate venues.

“I think we are going to do better than last year,” said Engel, who will swim the 100 freestyle, the 200 individual medley and the two freestyle relays. “We’re hoping for the section championship again, get a ton of points and a ton of teammates (down to state).”

With increased competition, Boelk has seen the battle over relay spots become intense. That depth, something neither program had before, could be key.

“We’re hoping to repeat again this year, and the way they are working you can see that they want it,” Boelk said.

The state meet is scheduled for March 18-20 at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

“For the longest time, I didn’t think we’d have a section or a state (meet) or even a season,” Boelk said. “Every day is a bonus.”

  • Duluth seeks to repeat after winning its first Section 7AA title in 27 seasons in 2020. The meet will be held Friday-Saturday at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids.

Sophomore Grant Wodny, who posted the top Northland times in six of the eight individual events and the second-best time in the other two races, heads up the team's lineup. He set numerous pool records during the season.
Senior Joe Rudd, who bested Wodny’s top time in the 100 breaststroke, ranks as runner-up in three other events.

Related Topics: SWIMMING AND DIVING
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