The Alexandria girls swimming and diving team knew exactly when the toughest dual on its schedule would be, and it happened to fall during the season opener.

Sartell-St. Stephen is always a talented Class A program in Minnesota, and nothing has changed this fall. The Sabres are the only unbeaten team in the Central Lakes Conference, and they beat Alexandria handily to open the season on Aug. 27.

Coaches for the Cardinals used that dual as an opportunity to put athletes into different events to see where they might be able to score points throughout the rest of the fall. Alexandria has a good comfort now on where each athlete fits best after winning eight straight duals to finish the regular season at 8-1.

“The team has really taken each meet as a learning opportunity,” head coach Crysta Krause said. “Without a state meet, they've changed their focus from how they do individually to what they can accomplish as a team.”

The Cardinals wrapped up the regular season with an easy 121-65 win over St. Cloud Tech on Oct. 9. They won nine of the 12 events, including a 1-2-3 finish in the 100 freestyle from Alaina Guenther, McKenna Horan and Sidney Johnson. There’s been a lot of blowouts like that throughout this winning streak.

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“It's been a rewarding experience watching these girls gain confidence over the course of the season,” Krause said. “They gained a lot of confidence after winning against Sauk Rapids-Rice, a team we had lost to last season. I think it was after that win that they started to see the season as an opportunity to win against teams that we hadn't in the past.”

The Cardinals also rose to the occasion when faced with stiffer competition against Rocori and Moorhead. Both of those duals came down to the final event in the 400-freestyle relay, where Alexandria out-touched the Spartans and Spuds for wins.

“Coming away from those meets where it came down to the last relay and they were able to fight through for the win has really boosted their confidence and shown the grit that these girls have,” Krause said. “Going into the section meet, they're feeling good with where their times are at individually as well as in the relays.”

The wins have been gratifying to see for Krause, but so too has watching how the athletes have grown into leadership roles through a season of so many changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandria was split into two practice groups this season to limit the number of athletes in the pool area at one time. Krause has seen that work into the Cardinals’ favor.

“Typically, each lane develops a leader that pushes those that swim with them,” she said. “With two groups, more of our team has developed those leadership skills. In doing so, they've taken more ownership in their performances and in the work ethic that their teammates show in practice and have really stepped it up this season. The motivation and the drive is really coming from within the team and from within these new leaders that have stepped up.”

Alexandria is one of three Section 6A teams scheduled to host others for the final meet on Oct. 24. Divers from each section program will be in Alexandria on Oct. 22.

“When the season started, we didn't have a section meet on the schedule, so the team is ready to swim and have an opportunity to taper and compete against the rest of the section,” Krause said.

Sartell, Rocori and St. Cloud Apollo are the three teams slated to be at the Discovery Middle School Pool on Oct. 24 for the swimming finals. It’s already been a memorable season for this group. The Cardinals are motivated to try to finish it off with their best times of the fall.

“I feel really fortunate to have Sartell and Rocori at our pool because it will push our swimmers to be at their best and it will bring out that competitive edge that comes with swimming against other talented athletes,” Krause said. “After so many weeks of practicing until 7:30 at night because of our multiple practice groups, I'm excited to see how the girls swim after a couple of weeks of rest and anticipate some nice time drops and fast swims.”