Boys swimming and diving: Stillwater climbs to fourth at state

Stillwater junior Robert Niemann swims to a second-place finish in the 500 freestyle during the Class AA boys’ swimming and diving state meet on Saturday, March 4 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. (Gazette staff photos by Stuart Groskreutz)
Stillwater junior Robert Niemann swims to a second-place finish in the 500 freestyle during the Class AA boys’ swimming and diving state meet on Saturday, March 4 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. (Gazette staff photos by Stuart Groskreutz)

MINNEAPOLIS — Putting the finishing touches on perhaps the greatest season in team history, Stillwater placed fourth at the Class AA boys’ swimming and diving state meet on Satruday, March 4 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.

The Ponies, who already won Suburban East Conference and Section 4AA titles this season — and finished second at True Team state — totaled 140 points to match the program’s best-ever finish at the state meet. Heavily favored Minnetonka was dominant while racking up 340 points and Eden Prairie was a strong second with 274 points. Chanhassen held off a late push from the Ponies to secure third place with 155 points.

Stillwater entered the state meet with qualifiers in 10 of 12 events and scored points in eight races. The Ponies placed qualifiers in the championship finals.

It was an impressive performance for the Ponies, who also set seven school records at the state meet.

“They were swimming fast the whole meet,” Ponies coach Brian Luke said. “They had a good prelims, so you get to watch the finals and they came back and swam equal or faster so it was a good effort.”

Stillwater’s Sam Payne, from left, Ethan Auleciems, Jon Busse and Sam Larson placed fourth in the 200 medley relay in the Class AA boys’ swimming and diving state meet on Saturday, March 4 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. (Gazette staff photo by Stuart Groskreutz)
Stillwater’s Sam Payne, from left, Ethan Auleciems, Jon Busse and Sam Larson placed fourth in the 200 medley relay in the Class AA boys’ swimming and diving state meet on Saturday, March 4 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. (Gazette staff photo by Stuart Groskreutz)

With Minnetonka and Eden Prairie ahead of the rest, the Ponies zeroed in on Chanhassen as they team they would need to catch in order to climb up to third. The Storm also featured qualifiers in 10 events, but they were able to hold off Stillwater with a runner-up finish in the 400 freestyle. With a team featuring Jon Busse, Sam Larson, Robert Niemann and Sam Payne, the Ponies finished sixth in the final event with a time of 3:11.00, slightly off the school record pace they turned while qualifying third during prelims (3:10.40).

“We tried to hopefully get third, but fell a little short,” Luke said. “They did well. We were very similar to Chanhassen. They had somebody in the finals of the fly and we didn’t, but then we had the 200 free relay and other than that every event we had they also had. Their relays were just a little better than ours. We were keeping track to see if we could gain on them and maybe overtaking them, but eventually we fell short. It’s fun to be in position to try.

“When you break seven school records it’s pretty hard to say why didn’t you swim faster.”

Busse led off that final relay with a 46.09 split, which is also a school record for the 100 freestyle — one of five marks he bettered as an individual or relay member at state.

Larson, Ethan Auleciems and Payne joined Busse on the 200 medley relay team that opened the meet with a school record time of 1:35.19 to place fourth, a three-spot improvement after qualifying seventh in prelims.

“That started out really fun,” Luke said. “They started in Lane 1 and moved up to fourth. The key to relays is to have everybody swim faster on the same day and they all swam faster and moved up, so that was exciting. I thought the rest of the meet was just fun to watch.”

Busse, a junior, also finished fifth in the 200 individual medley with a school record time of 1:51.24. He added a third-place finish in the 100 backstroke with a time of 50.23, which was nearly a second faster than his state meet winning time of 51.08 in 2015. Larson also scored points for the Ponies while finishing 14th in the backstroke with a time of 52.63.

Niemann delivered Stillwater’s top finish with a runner-up showing in the 500 freestyle with a time of 4:36.43 — clipping six seconds off his previous school record of 4:42.42 set earlier this season. Niemann also placed seventh in the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:43.09, which was slightly off the school record time of 1:42.24 he set in the preliminaries on Friday, March 3. Auleciems also competed for Stillwater in the 200, but failed to advance to the finals after ranking 20th in prelims with a time of 1:46.38.

Stillwater’s Jon Busse reacts to his third-place finish in the 100 backstroke. The junior set a school record in the process.
Stillwater’s Jon Busse reacts to his third-place finish in the 100 backstroke. The junior set a school record in the process.

It was a dramatic improvement Niemann, who failed to qualify for the finals in the 200 and placed ninth in the 500 a year ago.

“Last year he tied for 16th in the 200 and lost a swim off and in the 500 he won the consolation heat, but at the time I thought he looked like he had the potential to really step it up and I walked away thinking he’s a kid who could move up significantly,” Luke said. “He definitely did what I thought he could do and I think he’s potentially even faster, because he’s still pretty new. He started in seventh grade, but didn’t really hit his stride until ninth grade so he’s only three years into this thing. I think he’s still got a lot of stuff he can pick up.”

JohnThomas Larson won the 500 freestyle in an all-time state record of 4:16.92 — one of two records set by the Minnesota Online senior. Larson took charge almost immediately while building a nearly 20-second margin on the runner-up, but Niemann won a much closer battle for second with a .02 margin over third-place Thomas Pederson (4:36.45) of Minnetonka.

Niemann knew better than to let Larson affect his own pacing.

“I was in JohnThomas Larson’s section so I had multiple experiences racing him and I know by now not to try and go out with him,” Niemann said. “My coach told me don’t swim it 4:17 style, swim it Robert Niemann style. It definitely worked out. That’s such a great time for me.

“For the 500 last year it almost played out the exact same way except instead of battling for second we were battling for ninth in the consolation. It felt the exact same except going seven seconds faster.”

Auleciems finished fifth in the 100 breastroke with a time of 58.08. He also competed with Niemann, Joseph Saldin and Payne on a 200 freestyle relay team that placed 13th with a time of 1:28.90.

“Each kid on Saturday came back and did a good job and that’s a lot of max efforts in 24 hours,” Luke said. “You could tell at the end, even the big wigs, it’s an arduous task and I’m sure every swimmer that was there slept well on Saturday night. Eight max efforts in a 24-hour period is draining.”

Stillwater freshman Josiah Fick competed in his second state meet in diving, placing 25th after prelims (five dives) on Thursday, March 2 with a score of 137.15.

Luke did not disagree with the suggestion that this could be the greatest season in history for the Stillwater boys.

The Ponies placed fourth at MSHSL state in 2007, but that team finished second in the conference and section. Then in 2008 with many of the team’s top performers back, the Ponies won conference and section titles, placed third at True Team state and fifth at the MSHSL state meet. Stillwater finished seventh at True Team state in 2007, which was also a year it finished second behind Mounds View in the conference and section.

“I’d say statistically, it was,” Luke said. “Even the team that was fourth in 2007 was third at True Team state so this team would be the best.”

“This was extremely exciting,” Niemann added. “We went into this year thinking this was the best Stillwater is ever going to do, for a while at least, and we performed like it.”

In addition to Auleciems, Larson and Payne, who were the only seniors among Stillwater’s state contingent, the Ponies will also graduate seniors Tyler Banks, Drew Hammerlund and Ben Schlegel from this year’s squad.

“To have all six seniors make all-conference, I don’t think that’s ever happened on our team where it was 100 percent — and not just barely making it, they were up in there,” Luke said. “We have five of six on Stillwater’s all-time top 10 and three are school record holders and there’s three on the dual meet dream team. There’s just a lot of talent walking out the door.”

Their contributions will continue even once next season rolls around.

“I’m going to miss them all a lot. I could sit here for a while just describing how much I’ve looked up to them and I don’t think I’d be nearly where I was without those seniors, especially Ethan in the 200,” Niemann said. “I spent a year last year looking at him and how strong he was in the pool and I wanted to get to that.”

The coach also likes to remind his younger swimmers that the success of this year’s seniors didn’t happen overnight.

“Every single one of these seniors when they were in seventh grade, except for Ethan who joined in ninth grade, was in the JV meet, so we forget that they were not always this good,” Luke said. “They start out like everybody, but through determination and hard work and everything — now they’re that good.”

Team standings (top 10)

1. Minnetonka 340; 2. Eden Prairie 274; 3. Chanhassen 155; 4. Stillwater 140; 5. Shakopee 122.5; 6. Eagan 116; 7. Forest Lake 91; 8. Edina 89; 9. Prior Lake 84.5; 10. St. Michael-Albertville 77.

Individual results

200 medley relay — [email protected] Minnetonka, 1:29.20; *4. Stillwater (Sam Larson, Ethan Auleciems, Jon Busse and Sam Payne) 1:35.19. Prelims: 7. Stillwater, 1:36.35.

200 freestyle — 1. Sam Schilling (Minnetonka) 1:36.92; 7. Robert Niemann (St) 1:43.09. Prelims: *7. Niemann, 1:42.24; 20. Ethan Auleciems (St) 1:46.38.

200 individual medley — [email protected] JohnThomas Larson (Minnesota Online) 1:46.30; *5. Jon Busse (St) 1:51.24. Prelims: 6. Busse, 1:53.00.

50 freestyle — 1. Jordan Greenberg (Eden Prairie) 20.33.

Diving — 1. Vova Tipler (Hastings) 494.40. Prelims: 25. Josiah Fick (St) 137.15.

100 butterfly — @1. Joshua Withers (Eden Prairie) 48.25. Prelims: 19. Sam Larson (St) 52.67.

100 freestyle — 1. Sam Schilling (Minnetonka) 44.20.

500 freestyle — [email protected] JohnThomas Larson (Minnesota Online) 4:16.92; *2. Robert Niemann (St) 4:36.43. Prelims: 3. Niemann, 4:37.50.

200 freestyle relay — [email protected] Eden Prairie, 1:23.49; 13. Stillwater (Ethan Auleciems, Robert Niemann, Joseph Saldin and Sam Payne) 1:28.90. Prelims: 13. Stillwater, 1:29.19.

100 backstroke — [email protected] Jack Dahlgren (Chanhassen) 48.28; *3. Jon Busse (St) 50.23; 14. Sam Larson (St) 52.63. Prelims: 5. Busse, 50.62; 14. Larson, 52.10.

100 breastroke — 1. Corey Lau (Minnetonka) 55.04; 5. Ethan Auleciems (St) 58.08. Prelims: T5. Auleciems, 58.07.

400 freestyle relay — [email protected] Minnetonka, 3:01.59; 6. Stillwater (Jon Busse, Sam Larson, Robert Niemann and Sam Payne) 3:11.00. Prelims: *3. Stillwater, 3:10.40 (*Jon Busse also set 100 freestyle record leading off first leg with time of 46.09).

* Stillwater school record

# Class AA state record

@ All-time state meet record