After a record-setting performance at districts, last year's state meet left some members of the Marshalltown boys' swim team a bit unsettled.
Though times leveled off in the 2012 finale, the bittersweet finish proved to be the perfect offseason ally for several Bobcats who came into fall practice noticeably stronger - and hungry to return to the pool.
Qualifying for five events on the big stage a year ago, Marshalltown enters the 2012-13 campaign with similarly high expectations - and a quartet of returning state qualifiers ready to do the heavy lifting.
"There's a number of guys that spent a fair amount of time in the weight room. It's obvious that they're stronger and that's shown from day one in the water," said Bobcat coach Mike Loupee.
"We're anxious to see where those guys start."
Last year's second place finish at districts included a cumulative time drop of 122 seconds off the Bobcats' season best performances - punctuating the best taper in team history. Marshalltown came up empty on the scoreboard a week later though the cupboard isn't bare for this year's unit.
Blair Van Staalduine, Sam Carter, John Mahlstede and Raymond Dulaney all bring back state meet experience and will set the bar high for the rest of the team.
"We look for them to supply leadership in the water, during workouts, in the locker room and at meets. They know what the program is about and they know what the expectations are," said Loupee.
Those expectations include more than just a return trip to state.
"They want to do more than just be there. They want to score and move up," said Loupee.
Mahlstede, Dulaney and Van Staalduine formed three-fourths of the 24th place 200 medley relay at the 2012 state meet, while Carter anchored the 18th place 400 free relay. Van Staalduine also contributed to the Bobcats' 21st place 200 free relay.
The Bobcats must replace three seniors from the state contingent in Connor Dilger, Nate Menuey and Glenn Van Staalduine.
Marshalltown - 27 members strong - will look for some of its newcomers to pick up the slack including six freshmen, five who enter with swimming experience.
With aspirations of state on their minds, the Bobcats will get a taste of that elite level with match-ups against a few top-caliber squads throughout the year in the CIML Conference. Once again, Loupee expects the league to produce five or six squads that will finish in the top 10 at the season finale.
"Top to bottom, it's the premier conference in the state for swimming," said Loupee.
West Des Moines Valley and Ames headline the conference while Ankeny, Johnston and defending state runner-up Dowling also will be in the mix.
The Bobcats, which open the season tonight at Boone at 6 p.m., go head to head with two top-tier foes in duals against the Tigers (Dec. 6) and Little Cyclones (Jan. 7).
"We'll use those meets as opportunities to see where we're at and how much we need to improve to be the kind of caliber team that we strive to be," said Loupee.
Once again, sending the largest contingent to state will be the primary goal for Marshalltown, which will tinker with the roster to uncover their best lineup to achieve that.
"We work backwards from districts. We're going to experiment and find our best individuals for each event so that we have the strongest district lineup," said Loupee.
The Bobcats will have plenty of chances to work their way into one of those prized positions.
"Practices feed our meets and our meets fuel what we're going to do for the district meet," said Loupee.
"The ultimate goal is that state meet. We work real hard for three months in the winter time to perform on two Saturdays in February."