North St. Paul seniors Mitchell Whyte, Jared Baetzold and Maxwell Parks each began swimming for the Polars as seventh-graders, Whyte and Baetzold spurred by older brothers.
Six years later, the three are members of arguably one of the best returning medley relay teams in the state.
Whyte, Baetzold, Parks and junior Nathan Huntley took 12th in the 200-yard medley relay last year at the Class 2A state meet. The foursome appears confident about its chances this year, along with the odds for the team, which finished fourth in Section 4 last year.
“We can do better,” Huntley said.
It’s a sentiment shared by their coach, former University of Minnesota swimmer Tess Behrens, who said she expects the team of about 20 to have a good year.
“We have younger kids who will score for the first time,” Baetzold said.
Behrens joined the team as an assistant coach in 2014, after a career with the Gophers that included nine All-America awards.
She joined a string of former Gophers swimmers to coach North St. Paul, including ex-Minneapolis South standout Molly Belk and seven-time All-America Haley Spencer. Behrens became head coach in 2015.
Behrens said she immediately saw potential in Whyte and Baetzold when she joined the program as an assistant. Each has a different personality, she said, with Whyte more vocal and Baetzold quieter and softer spoken.
“It balances out really well,” she said. “Their leadership styles are so opposite that they meet each other halfway.”
Both developed good technique, Behrens said, adding that each embraced the demanding training regimen she asked of them. The experience paid off for Whyte in 2015, when he took ninth in the 100 backstroke at the state meet.
Behrens said she told Whyte he could win the title in 2016 if he was diligent with his offseason training.
He did just that, improving by over three seconds on his time. The Polars finished eighth as a team that year, with Whyte and Baetzold also contributing to a third-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
Whyte and Baetzold led the team’s 200 medley relay back to state in 2017, with Parks and Huntley joining the group. Whyte also qualified for state in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, and Baetzold qualified in the 50 and 100 free, picking up two top-10 finishes.
The 100 fly didn’t go as planned for Whyte, who was disqualified in the preliminaries after a false start. Behrens helped him refocus before the 100 backstroke race, in which he took second.
“I don’t think I could have asked for a better outcome,” Behrens said.
Whyte, Baetzold, Parks and Huntley said they appreciate Behrens as a coach, noting that she’s good at motivating swimmers and the other mental parts of coaching. She trains the team on practice sets she learned at Minnesota, albeit modified versions of them.
During a recent practice, the swimmers groaned when they saw the set Behrens had prepared for them, which included all four strokes. Behrens said she has them practice the individual medley once or twice a week early in the season.
“They don’t like it, but they don’t have to,” she said.
Her college-style training regimen could pay dividends for Whyte and Baetzold, each of whom plans to swim for a Division I program next fall. Whyte has signed with Eastern Michigan and Baetzold has committed to Wisconsin.
Behrens said she thinks both should have a productive college swimming careers if they continue their hard work.
“They’re both setting themselves up for a really good college career,” she said.