Joel Harris and Corey Sturm feel the time has come to reclaim something that has been missing since 2002.
Anything less than a Wisconsin Valley Conference championship will be unacceptable for the senior captains of the Stevens Point Area Senior High boys swimming team.
And in order to make that happen, the Panthers are going to have to go through seven-time defending Valley champion Wausau East.
Sturm and Harris have been part of a program which has been building toward that lofty achievement since both of them were freshman on the varsity.
“The only way this season will be a success is if we beat East in the dual meet (Jan. 10). We have to beat them one-on-one,” said Sturm, pulling no punches. “Our talent has continued to improve and we have the depth to carry us.”
There has been no questioning the work ethic of every member of the team to make the ultimate goal come true.
They’ve been waking up early all those days for 5 a.m. practices and returning to the pool to train for another couple hours after classes.
All of that was done with one thing in mind — wrestling the Valley championship trophy away from the Lumberjacks.
However, Harris made it clear winning the conference championship wouldn’t just be about the current members of the team.
“Me and Corey are four-year seniors, so it would mean the world to us and the guys who were there when we were freshmen,” Harris said. “We would come to the realization of seeing our hard work pay off and validate what coach Bob (Allen) preaches.
“Nobody wants to be co-champions. We want to be No. 1. We want it outright and undisputed.”
There is no disputing the Panthers have their share of talent up and down the lineup, and have every discipline — freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke — covered and then some.
Harris can makes waves in the freestyle middle distance and breaststroke events, while Sturm has made the backstroke his specialty throughout his career.
But what separates this Panthers team from some in the recent past is the versatility individuals such as Ryan Neigbauer, Tyler Tanko, Daniel Roberts, Aaron Bink, Ben Harris, Tom Negaard and Willie Rosenthal bring to the pool.
But the potential list of contributors to a Valley championship run doesn’t stop there. Kevin Slezak, Adam Wentzel and Jonathan Schmit all have demonstrated the ability to score points in a variety of events.
“We have a number of guys who we can put in sprints or any event we need. We have a ton of flexibility with multiple guys being able to swim multiple events,” Harris said. “I think we’ve shown what this team is capable of when we put everything together.”
The leadership of the the senior co-captains who have shown the way through hard work, and a willingness to take the inexperienced swimmers and newcomers under their wings has created that balance.
Sturm and Harris just want to do their part to make sure they help put the Panthers in the best position possible for a run at the Valley championship.
Not only is this shaping up as a special season for the Panthers, but this edition of the team has a number of special qualities, including a single-minded purpose when they arrive at the pool.
“This team is any coach’s dream. They’re a great group of guys and fun to work with. They are respectful and they work their tails off,” Allen said. “Joel and Corey are absolutely awesome. They’re great people and command respect.”
Trying to find a weakness on SPASH’s team might be the toughest part.
The Panthers are more than eight individuals deep which lets them form at least two strong relay teams for each of the three events — which are weighted much higher in the scoring.
In addition, with so many talented individuals, SPASH has shown it can match up with just about anyone through a pair of conference duals and the Santa Invitational in Eau Claire last weekend.
All that stands between the Panthers and the ultimate goal is Wausau East.
“That’s our goal every year,” said Allen of beating the Lumberjacks. “East has always been a thorn in our side. It’s going to come down to who they move where and who we move where.”