The Lakeville South boys’ swimming team had an exceptional leader in Mitch Herrera a year ago. He has since departed and is blossoming into a star at Columbia University.

Two of his close friends — identical twins Luke and Matt Sabal — are now trying to fill his void. They are doing so with a dual approach.

“They are two very different people, but they are both intelligent and great leaders,” Lakeville North coach Rick Ringeisen said. “They were really close to Mitch, and still are. Mitch was a great leader for a long time. He set the tone for the future of this program.”

The Cougars are currently ranked No. 9 in the Class 2A poll by the Minnesota High School Coach Association. They are coming off a fourth-place finish in the maroon division of the Maroon & Gold Invitational at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.

“Luke and Matt are both a class act,” Ringeisen said. “Their parents have done an amazing job. They are everything I could ever ask for in leadership.”

The Sabals will be the first to tell you that they don’t do it alone. They have the help of two other captains, seniors Trent Meyer and Ben Sprengeler.

“It’s a collective effort between us and the other two captains on the team,” Luke Sabal said. He finished eighth in the 200-yard individual medley and 12th in the 100 butterfly at the state meet a year ago. “We all work together as a group.”

They have a common goal of keeping the program at a high level. The Cougars took seventh place as a team in the state meet last season.

“We’ve had success recently and in the past because of the large classes we’ve had come out for swimming,” Matt Sabal said. He and Luke were members of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams that finished in the top four in the state. “We want to get kids started in swimming early. The kids who are on the swimming team want to do well.”

The leadership of a team is instrumental in molding the future of the program. The Cougars have nine seniors on the roster, along with a talented group of 10 sophomores.

“Our nine seniors are why we’re a top 10 team,” Ringeisen said. “Two years from now, we could be a top 10 team, too. It’s a matter of how hard you want to work.”

One young swimmer who took the work ethic approach to heart is freshman Ray Bares. He climbed from fourth or fifth on the depth chart to second or third.

“He is without a doubt the most improved swimmer on our team,” Ringeisen said. “All of a sudden the light switch went on for him. Surprises like Ray really help the team.”

While Bares deserves plenty of credit, so do others within the program.

“We have a really good collective system between our coaches and captains,” Luke Sabal said. “We all encourage everybody to work really hard.”