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Sam Norton of the Orono High School swim team at practice. Long Lake, MN on October 4, 2013. ] JOELKOYAMA•joel koyama@startribune

 

The margin for error is small in swimming. A bad turn, a weak stroke, a short-armed reach for the final wall — each can be the difference between victory and defeat.

For Orono’s Sam Norton, it was “a wiggle” in the starting blocks that spoiled her 2012 Class A meet.

“I would’ve been second in the 200 IM, but I got disqualified,” said the sophomore, able to laugh at the memory almost a year later. “They said I wiggled my butt too much. It’s just something to learn from.”

It’s a lesson with resonance for her girls’ swimming and diving team, whose roster is regularly half the size of its opponents. Coach Peter Buecher said the message has been simple: Success this season will be determined by “all the little things” going right for the Spartans.

“We have a lot of good swimmers, but because we don’t have a lot of kids, we don’t have much depth,” Buecher said. “The more bodies you have, the more depth. If we’re missing anyone, or someone’s hurt or sick or off that meet, it hurts us a lot more than other teams.”

That hasn’t been an issue so far this fall. With only 29 girls on the swim roster, including only four seniors and four juniors, Orono is 8-0 in dual meets and has won two of its four invitational events.

Though short on quantity, the Spartans’ top-end talent has made them one of the state’s best Class 1A squads at the midpoint of the season. It also has them pegged as a favorite to take a league title for the first time since rival Hutchinson joined the Wright County Conference.

“That’s definitely the goal — winning conference,” Buecher said. “We’d like to win conference, get a trophy at sections by finishing first or second, and then just see what happens at state.”

Buecher said he expects between six and 12 swimmers could make the state meet, where some have a chance to place in the top 16.

The Spartans also could qualify three relay teams that could challenge for the top spot in the state. Orono’s 200-yard freestyle relay and 200-yard medley relay haven’t lost a race yet this season.

“We can’t be cocky, though,” said freshman Alison Tallen, who is on both teams along with Norton and junior Annika Sherek. “We’ve been doing well, but we can’t let that get to us. We have to keep trying to get better, because everyone else will, too.”

The success comes during what should be considered a “rebuilding year,” Buecher said. Most of the team’s top swimmers are underclassmen. There are as many seventh- and eighth-graders on the roster as there are juniors and seniors.

Last season’s team was more senior-heavy, Buecher said, but a slew of injuries and illnesses led to some underwhelming results.

That hasn’t been the case so far this fall, as Buecher said he hasn’t dealt with too many swimmers out of the lineup. Norton missed some time because of a virus. Other than that, the Spartans have been relatively healthy.

“And they’ve been swimming better to start than some years,” he said. “A lot of them swam over the summer and put in the time.”

As the Spartans look to taper for their biggest meets — the conference championship on Oct. 26 and sections on Nov. 7 — they hope that extra work will pay off.

“We want to finish really strong,” Norton said. “Swimming can be tough — just going over and over looking at the black [lane] line all day. But we know that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

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