INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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MARION — Though not a member of the Linn-Mar girls’ swimming team last season, Kelsey Drake was never far away.
Whether she was participating in team functions, lifeguarding a meet or simply cheering from the stands, Drake found ways to stay around the squad while she prepared for the U.S. Olympic Team Swim Trials, which were held midsummer in Omaha, Neb.
“She didn’t disassociate herself from us,” Linn-Mar Coach Chad Derlein-Hoffman said. “She stayed involved. She kept active. She kept helping with the girls.”
Now a senior and with the Olympic Trials in the rearview mirror, Drake has returned to the Lions, who host Newton at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a season-opening dual at Linn-Mar Aquatic Center.
“I’m really excited to be part of a high-school team again and be a part of that atmosphere because we have a really great team this year,” Drake said. “I think we’ll have a lot of fun and that’s what I’m really looking forward to this year – just have a lot of fun and swim fast along the way.”
Drake, 17, won individual state titles in the 100-yard butterfly and the 200 individual medley and helped Linn-Mar to a top-5 team finish at the 2014 state meet. Last season, she elected to focus exclusively on training with the Linn-Mar club team for the Olympic Trials , where she participated in the 100-meter butterfly but fell outside of the top 100 swimmers in the event.
“It was awesome,” Drake said. “Just being able to be there and swim with the best swimmers in the nation and basically the world was the best experience of my life and I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was so much fun.”
Drake – owner of Mississippi Valley Conference records in both the 100 butterfly (56.45) and the IM (2:08.16) – has narrowed her list of college destinations to four schools – Iowa, Missouri, Louisville and North Carolina State. Her return to the Lions will be impeded somewhat throughout September as she takes official visits to all four schools. After September, she is planning no other visits.
“My big decision will be based on how well I will be able to connect with the team and coaches on a personal level,” Drake said. “Because I want to go somewhere where we’ll all be part of a family more than anything else.”
Drake will be counted on to provide strong leadership to a young Linn-Mar roster that includes 15 freshmen, led by Mallory Ahrens and Shannon Kelley. By contrast, last season’s team had just two freshmen with one swimmer – Serena Brizard – providing a glimpse of a bright future in the freestyle events.
The Lions also return a trio of juniors in Grace Ahlers (distance), Emma Behrens (backstroke/IM) and Sophia Abodeely (freestyle).
The combination of returners plus youth has both the team and Derlein-Hoffman excited about the potential for the new season.
“Everything is up,” Derlein-Hoffman said. “The depth is up, the morale is up, work ethic’s up. It’s just a completely different expectation than we had last year.”
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