Weeks before its season-opening meet at Williston on Saturday, Dec. 8, the Dickinson High boys swimming and diving team made a change at the top of its program.
McKenzie Steckler will enter her first year as head coach after assisting with the boys team last year and spending two years as an assistant coach with the girls team.
Steckler, who graduated from Bismarck Century and swam collegiately at the University of North Dakota, takes over the squad, previously headed by Mike Sullivan.
"They already know me, so it's a pretty easy transition," Steckler said. "They know that I'm a lot different than Mike, so that's a little change for them, getting use to my style versus theirs, but they are doing very well with it. ... I'm definitely more structured and probably harder. Just coming from my swimming background and how hard I was pushed, I want to push the boys too, to get their maximum potential out of them."
While the transition has been smooth thus far, the Midgets overall youth and inexperience may prove to be Steckler's biggest hurdle. Outside of two swimmers, the talented but young roster is made up three seventh-graders, one eighth-grader and seven freshmen.
Stacking up against programs in the WDA rich with upperclassmen like as Bismarck Century and defending champion Minot may be a disadvantage, but the Midgets have a thirst to take in her instruction.
"We're definitely young, but they have so much energy and they're willing to do anything I kind of throw at them, so that gives me more leeway to really push them, because they have more excitement for new things and they aren't really set in old ways," Steckler said. "If you do have underclassmen that are willing push themselves and really work hard, you can definitely see them on top, too."
Two of the top freshman returners are Mason Beck and Dawson Wilson. At last year's state meet, Beck was 26th in the 1-meter dive while Wilson advanced to the finals in the same event, taking home 10th with a score of 325.90.
On the heels of how well the divers performed in February, they may be in line for breakout seasons, as for the first time, they'll have a diving coach to nurture them along. Lexee Craig, who was the diving coach for the girls team this past season, is now on board in the same capacity for the boys.
Beck and Wilson also competed in the 400-meter freestyle relay alongside returning freshmen Aidey Healy and Casey Tung, placing 13th at state.
The two other returning state-qualifiers are sophomore Taven Wilson and senior Isaac Ellerkamp, who were each selected as team captains.
"I want to be the guy that the kids look up to and say, 'That's my captain; he set a good example and I want to be like him as a senior,'" Ellerkamp said. "Not only do I say that because they are like my brothers, but I want to say that because they are my best friends."
Ellerkamp participated in four events at state last year while Taven Wilson competed in three. Their best result came together as part of the 200 freestyle relay, capturing 10th place. Now, the team's lone sophomore has his sights set on finishing among the elite at state, particularly in the 200-and 500-freestyle, and hopes others on the team follow suit.
"I'd like to see some of the younger guys step up and (qualify for state) this year, because we only had a couple state qualifiers last year," Taven Wilson said. "For myself, I'd like to at least make the top 6 in state for an event. ... Distance is one of my strengths."
Ellerkamp added to his co-captain's sentiment, remarking how much his teammates have prepared for the 2018-19 campaign.
"I think our guys are working hard, and especially were in the offseason. It's a great time to get in condition, stay in shape and ready for the season," Ellerkamp added. " Being a swimmer, not swimming for a month or two, you'll get out of shape pretty easily. Swimming is one of those sports where you have to be conditioned. ... We're going to be ready."
Dickinson captured 13th overall at state one season ago. After watching firsthand the girls put together their best season in school history - eighth at state - in the fall, Steckler wants to continue that momentum.
"I want them to improve from where they were last year. I know that's every coach's goal, but last year, they only had one swimmer and one diver come back to (state) finals. My goal is just to have more than that this year and hopefully move up to where we were," Steckler said. "The girls did a phenomenal job, breaking every school record except for one this year, and I'm hoping that the boys can go off that energy and break more as well."