Time to club up, or shut up.
Like many sports, swimming has its usual suspects near the top of the food chain. State powers, storied programs and household names certainly helped build and sustain these schools. But why have Edina, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie captured a collective 18 boys' state titles since 1984? Tradition, culture and numbers help, but clubs and year-round commitments power the ships.
The landscape of competitive swimming has shifted. More and more clubs and year-round swimmers are changes Woodbury coach Marty Hoven has noticed the past 10 years.
"It wasn't like that when I was swimming, but now that's kind of what drives a lot of high school programs," Hoven said. "It's a changing program. It's modifying itself into something different."
Maple Grove has consistently been a contender, and continues to be this year. Coach Ron Jacobsen believes this is the only way to sustain those efforts.
"We want to be a top-five team every year. If we're going to do that, the boys need to swim more than just during the high school season," Jacobsen said. "If you look at the guys definitely in the top eight, most of those guys are swimming year-round."
The number of Crimson making that commitment continues to grow. More clubs are beginning to surface, such as the newer Aquatic Club of Dakota County, which has helped Class 1A Simley, among other teams, develop top-quality swimmers.
Stillwater coach Brian Luke believes the better-located facility built in 1992 has helped increase numbers and build successful boys' and girls' programs over the years. On the other hand, Jacobsen said facilities are not much of a factor, citing Edina's long-term success before the construction of its newer setup.
"They used to train in an old five-lane, 25-yard pool. I don't think it has anything to do with that. It's the culture you create. It's what you do with the facility that you have," Jacobsen said. "You could put me on Lance Armstrong's bike and you could put him on my old Schwinn 10-speed and he would still beat me any day of the week. It's what you do with it. It's the athletes that you create."
Numbers are also a main factor. The large school districts, such as Edina, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, house only one high school, while the Woodbury program was split in two when East Ridge was formed in 2009.
"We're doing our best and we're happy with what we've got, but splitting high schools definitely affects it," said Hoven, who boasts stars such as Greg Norsten and Victor Lugg. "We're closing the gap a little bit. It's tough filling those numbers."
In the Class 2A, Section 4 meet, Woodbury and East Ridge captured every individual title, except for diving. As one program, they might be challenging the west metro's finest this weekend. Instead, the Royals are hoping to crack the top 10.
Clubs paired with large school districts have a stranglehold over the top Class 2A spots. That trend won't deviate this weekend.
Eden Prairie returns an all-star cast as the Class 2A favorite. The medley relay team of Bryce Boston, Aaron Greenberg, Maverick Hovey and Michael Solfelt is certainly one to watch. As a team, the Eagles took second to Minnetonka last year by only 5 1/2 points. The Skippers are solid once again. Maple Grove and Rosemount also are very strong.
On the Class 1A side, St. Thomas Academy is the heavy favorite -- and comes with a chip on its shoulder. The Cadets missed out on a title by just one point to Fergus Falls last March. Paul Fair, the 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard freestyle champion, returns to guide Monticello. Junior Mitch Foster leads Breck-Blake, which always make a strong push.