LAND O'LAKES — The kids arrive one by one to this outdoor pool on a late October afternoon.
Record cold has arrived and the thought of stripping down to a Speedo and diving into a swim lane conjures images of Polar Bear clubs up north, where people run into icy waters that pinch at their skin and remind them they are alive.
This pool's temperature is nice and warm, cozy enough to keep kids in the water and off the pool deck.
Through almost any weather, these swim lanes have provided hundreds of miles of training and triumph for the Land O'Lakes senior boys, many of whom began swimming here long before high school.
The latest edition of Gator greats includes seniors Curt Hilgenberg, Sean Lawson, Derrick Mysels, Eric Singer, Igor Passioura, Dan Gray and Kody Kuhl.
All but Gray have been together for four seasons, and their accomplishments are staggering. They have four undefeated regular seasons. They have been members of four Sunshine Athletic Conference title teams. And if they win Friday at the Class 2A, District 5 meet in Northdale, they will have won four district titles. Land O'Lakes is heavily favored to do just that.
"Every time I have to get in the pool this time of year I think about the performance I'll have to pull off to keep going," Singer said. "That's what pushes us."
Then comes the region meet, where swimmers are battling for state berths and first place taunts them like climbers staring at Mount Everest.
Land O'Lakes has finished second the past two seasons at regionals. This year, winning a region title suddenly seems possible.
"When we realized last year we were runnerup with mostly juniors, we realized we had a chance to do something big this year," Hilgenberg said. "That's what our senior class is looking forward to."
The boys expect to send all three relay teams to state. They have other goals as well.
The SAC meet, Gators coach Robin Hilgenberg said, was a disappointment and an awakening.
Keep in mind that Land O'Lakes scored 112 points in every event, breaking three conference records in the process.
"Bad things happened," Hilgenberg said. "Bad starts, slips off the blocks, slips on the turns. None of them finished as high up as they anticipated. Their times didn't drop."
Mysels should have finished higher in the butterfly, but he slipped on a turn. Hilgenberg slipped on a block in the breaststroke. Lawson could have swum faster. Singer thought he would be closer to Gulf senior Michael Centanni on the finish in both freestyle races.
"What's hard for these boys in a way is that they don't have a lot of wakeup calls during the season," Robin Hilgenberg said. "… We get pretty serious for conference … and by the end of the meet we proved what kind of team we are."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-5315.