Besides the COVID-19 pandemic — or maybe because of it — the next biggest challenge for the Superior boys swim team is the condensed season, according to coach Bill Punyko.

Typically with conditioning, Punyko said the intensity increases and then tapers off, so that by the end of eight weeks, his team is swimming its fastest times.

This year, he had to work with a timeframe of five to six weeks because the Superior School Board didn’t allow athletic teams to practice or compete while the district was in a virtual learning model. The board voted in mid-December to allow students to start practice Dec. 21. Students returned to hybrid instruction Monday, Jan. 11.

Punyko, who also coaches the girls swim team in the fall, said the girls were swimming their fastest times at the end of the season, but he knew they could have improved even more had the season not been cut short. That’s the obstacle he faces with the boys team, as well.

“I ran out of time to get them (the girls) their best conditioning and best performances. They still had best performances … and I anticipate that with the boys, but I know they could do better if I had more time. That’s just me as a coach,” he said.

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RELATED: Prep girls swimming: Superior coach eyes virtual meets

Superior’s Eli Benson swims to a third place finish in the 200 yard freestyle during the Spartans meet Menomonie Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Superior’s Eli Benson swims to a third place finish in the 200 yard freestyle during the Spartans meet Menomonie Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Despite having less time with his swimmers, Punyko said he understands why those decisions were made.

"We needed to make sure everybody was safe and I don’t question those choices and those decisions, ... the unknown is the scariest part of how you’re going to manage this," he said.

The team, a co-op with Northwestern High School, has 11 swimmers this season. Kyle Kittelson, Ryan Peterson, Teagan Radtke, Arthur Pfeil, and Mason Larsen stood out to Punyko at the beginning of the season.

Punyko called Peterson “a utility player” who is skilled in many areas and can fill in gaps during meets. The Northwestern High School junior has primarily swam freestyle, but is experimenting with the butterfly.

Larsen stands out not only for the times he has posted in the backstroke, but also for his work ethic so far this season.

“He’s been swimming through the Y program for a number of years and has put in a lot of effort and work and has a really good attitude,” he said.

Pfeil is a swimmer who is “coming into his own,” Punyko said, and is showing progress in the backstroke and freestyle.

As for meets, it’s a bit easier to have virtual contests with swimming than with other sports, which is one bright spot, Punyko said.

“It’s better to compete directly with each other, but at least we can still have a season. I’m grateful for that virtual nature of competition,” he said.

Members of the Spartan swim team cheer on Mason Larsen as he swims to a third place finish in the 200 yard individual medley during the Spartans meet Menomonie Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Members of the Spartan swim team cheer on Mason Larsen as he swims to a third place finish in the 200 yard individual medley during the Spartans meet Menomonie Tuesday, Jan. 5, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has laid out plans for a postseason, but Punyko said he’s not sure a state swim meet will happen.

No matter how the season ends, the swimmers appreciate the opportunity to be together in some capacity and participate.

“They want the chance to compete and having anything at this point really makes you grateful for these chances, so they’ve taken it a lot more seriously,” Punyko said.

The Spartans’ next meet is 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Rice Lake.