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From left, Adrian Sommers, Mitch Herrera and Travis Meyer are among a group of Lakeville South swimmers that has big aspirations come state meet time. Photo by ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com

When it comes to swimming, roster size, youth, experience and program pedigree sink out of sight once a race starts and bodies in the water are pulling toward the wall.

"There's no hiding where you're at," Lakeville South coach Rick Ringeisen said. "You look at the times, and you know where you stack up."

That's what had the Lakeville South boys' swimming and diving team dreaming big heading into this season.

The 2011-12 campaign ended with two individuals and two relay teams making appearances at the Class 2A state meet. The Cougars knew they were close to taking a big step as a program. They knew the benchmarks, the times set by premier programs such as Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.

When they opened this season with an impressive victory over rival Lakeville North, the Cougars quickly showed others what they saw all offseason in training and club races.

"We knew this was going to be a year where we could kind of step it up," said junior Mitch Herrera, who finished fourth at state in the 500 freestyle last season. "I think, on the outside, people are surprised, but we all knew just from training what we had. You see the work you're putting in and you can kind of see it coming a bit."

The season thus far is a good indication of how far the Lakeville South program has come since its inception in 2005. The Cougars, ranked No. 6 in Class 2A, are one dual-meet victory from their first South Suburban Conference title. They also are starting to eye next month's state meet.

"This is the best boys' team we've had at South," said Ringeisen, in his 34th year coaching varsity swimming in Lakeville, including all eight in South's history. "It's all about the preparation they've done, how they've gotten ready for the season, and the kids we have."

The Cougars' seven seniors are all team captains. Many have been swimming in varsity meets since seventh grade. They've grown together as the program's grown.

The group includes Travis Meyer, one of the Cougars' two state qualifiers last year. Meyer said it's been a slow growth to this point but "they've seen it coming."

"We've gotten a lot better, and we have the younger kids who've really stepped up and helped a ton," he said. "It's really a break-out-year type of thing."

The freestyle events are one of the team's strengths. Its depth in relays is another. The Cougars also have senior Lee Bares, a stellar veteran diver.

Asked who had the best shots at qualifying for state, Ringeisen listed seniors Meyer, Robert Trone, Daniel Eckerson, Mitch Hedquist, Kalvin Moschkau and juniors Herrera and Adrian Sommers.

The team finished second to Rosemount in Saturday's Class 2A, Section 3 true team event. Ringeisen said the true team format isn't necessarily to his squad's advantage.

The real tests down the stretch will be the Cougars' Feb. 5 dual with Rosemount and its section meet starting Feb. 20.

To end the season with a top-10 showing at state would be "ideal," Ringeisen said, "but you never know. Anything can happen."

"In a sport as competitive as swimming, just because you made it one year doesn't mean you're making it the next,'' he said. "Just because you won before doesn't mean you're going to win again. And it's the same for us: Just because you haven't done it before doesn't mean you're not going to. You have to have that big swim when it counts. It's all about the time you put up. That's all that matters."

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