Magi face stiff, improving competition at state meet

The mission – one told by the 25 state championship banners hanging in its primo swimming facility – hasn’t changed for Minot since the inception of North Dakota prep swimming.

But the expectations have.

When the Magicians begin prelims today for the state swim meet at the Bismarck Aquatic Center, they’ll still be the most tradition-rich program in the pool.

They’re just no longer the consensus favorite.

“My expectation isn’t that we win (a state title), but that we finish the season successfully,” Minot coach Jake Solper said. “However the points shake out, they shake out.”

And it’s not that the Magi are especially down in talent, numbers or have experienced any other program pitfalls. The landscape has just changed.

High school swimming – from talent, resources and growing feeder programs – is gaining ground in the Peace Garden State, and Minot is relishing the competition that, at a time, came from just Mandan and a pair of teams from Fargo.

Mandan broke through with three state titles in the 1990s. Since then only two titles have come from the east.

“When you have 65 kids out against 25, it makes things a little harder,” longtime Mandan coach Ralph Manley said. “They’ve done an awesome job in promoting the state in swimming.”

After winning 10 consecutive state titles from 1999-2008, the Magicians finished an atypical fourth in 2009. After recapturing the crown in 2010 and 2011, they finished third last season.

West Fargo and Fargo North, which both tied for first at the 2012 state meet, have been established in the East Region. In the West Region, however, Century is closing in on the once-substantial chasm that separated it from Minot and Mandan.

Coming into this season Century was tabbed the region favorite, but Minot asserted its dominance by besting the Patriots at last week’s West Region meet.

“The other programs are stepping up,” Solper said. “We’ve been known as the swim town and everyone else is catching up.”

Four-year letterman and 50-yard freestyle title contender Luke Heilman has even noticed the sport’s evolution.

“Swimming has come a long way,” Heilman said. “There was a point where all you’d see were the championship banners on Minot’s wall.”

Now Heilman, the No. 2 seed in 50 free (22.49 seconds) hopes to capture a memento of his own this weekend.

Nick Buch and Ethan Bahl lead Minot as the team’s lone No. 1 seeds, with Buch (56.98) in the 100 backstroke and Bahl (1:00.55) in the 100 breaststroke.

All of Minot’s relays are also expected to compete for titles.

“We didn’t show up ready to swim last year,” Heilman said. “We know that Century is going to be ready. We’re looking forward to this.”

Zdenek Skalicky (200 IM) is also seeded second for Minot.

Skalicky (100 breast), Bahl (200 free), Jared Kramer (100 free) and Gerald Brown (500 free) have also locked up No. 3 seeds. Senior diver Jeremy Fix is another top-five seed for the Magicians.

“We’re hoping to place better than fourth,” Solper said. “I don’t think winning state is intangible.”