In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Superior Whalers Swim Team is getting ready to send the most young athletes it ever has to a state meet.

The virtual meet starts Tuesday, Feb. 23, for children age 10 and under, and continues Friday, Feb. 26, for children age 11 and up.

The Whalers will have 125 swimmers out of the 615 who are competing at the meet, said head coach Stefan Pagnucci.

“Especially during a pandemic, a lot of youth programming has struggled to maintain numbers, and we’re technically sending the biggest group to state that we ever have, so that’s pretty cool,” he said.

Whalers swimmer Katelynn Monroe, 10, during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Whalers swimmer Katelynn Monroe, 10, during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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After finishing third at last year's state meet, the team has its sights set on a state title.

Unlike previous years, there are no psych sheets for the state meet, which detail the names and times for the competitors headed into each event.

Each swimmer can participate in up to three individual events and two relays. Without psych sheets, the coaches have been more strategic about entering swimmers into races.

But Pagnucci said that part has caused more anxiety for the coaches than their swimmers.

“As far as the coaches, we’re probably the ones who are more anxious as a group, because you want the kids to be able to perform well and you know that it matters to them,” he said.

Addison Bartling, 14, swims the breaststroke during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Addison Bartling, 14, swims the breaststroke during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Ryan Peterson, a junior at Northwestern High School in Maple, will compete in the 200 and 500 freestyle and the 200 individual medley. Peterson said he tries not to pay too much attention to psych sheets, but said they can be helpful tools to prepare for competition.

“Personally for me, I try to just beat my own times and if I can do that, then I've accomplished my goals,” he said. “It’s just a little more challenging not knowing anything about how many people you’re going to swim against or who you’re going to swim against, so it’s just more strategy when (Pagnucci) puts you in events.”

Peterson, who swims for the Superior-Northwestern boys co-op team, said the Whalers season has been different from the high school season in that the students aren’t able to swim daily. To adhere to safety protocols, swimmers are split into groups and practice two days per week.

That being said, the swimmers are grateful they have the opportunity to compete considering the pandemic.

Whalers head coach Stefan Pagnucci talks with Stella Caine, 11, during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. Caine was disappointed when she didn't hit her personal best time for 200-meter breaststroke during practice. Pagnucci reminded her it was right after swimming 500 meters, so it was understandable she was unable to match her best time. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Whalers head coach Stefan Pagnucci talks with Stella Caine, 11, during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. Caine was disappointed when she didn't hit her personal best time for 200-meter breaststroke during practice. Pagnucci reminded her it was right after swimming 500 meters, so it was understandable she was unable to match her best time. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

“You still get to swim with people that you enjoy being around. I think being around those people really helped brighten up the times right now,” Peterson said.

Rylee Demers, a freshman at Esko High School, said she’s looking forward to the state meet because a few months ago, she wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Demers will swim in the 1,000 freestyle and two other events still to be determined.

“I keep telling myself at least we got to swim this year and to make the most out of it because we don’t know what the future holds for us with COVID yet,” she said.

Because of the virtual format, it will take some time for officials to compile the results of the state meet. Pagnucci said teams will have their results posted by March 7.

Some of Pagnucci’s swimmers are taking on some particularly challenging races, and he said he’s looking forward to seeing them push themselves at the competition.

“I want to get to see those races, those ones where we’ve put some big challenges in front of some people and you get to see them conquer that challenge,” he said. “And I know they will we’ve prepared them for it in practice. But it will still be that much cooler when it’s for real — when we’re timing, officiating, and we get to see and post that result, it will be pretty special.”

Dillan Skandel, 10, swims the butterfly during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Dillan Skandel, 10, swims the butterfly during practice Friday, Feb. 19, at the Superior YMCA. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)