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New coach brings new life to Packer swim team

West Fargo swimming coach Sally Sautner talks to her team during practice at the L.E. Berger pool. David Samson / Forum News Service

By Daniel Determan

For the better part of the last two decades, Marsha Dahl has been at poolside coaching the Packer swim teams. When she retired in the spring, growing pains were somewhat expected out of a girls team with years of a single coaching strategy.

However, first-time head coach Sally Sautner has been leading the team to one of its best seasons in school history.

“I never really knew what (Dahl) did on deck,” Sautner said. “So when I stepped in, I thought it was going to be a real curveball for the girls, but they took right to it. It is definitely beyond what I expected as far as the energy level and the attitude of the girls. I thought this was going to be a hard transition, but they have been absolutely amazing.”

Through eight meets this season, the Packers have taken first place in seven meets, falling only to Bismarck High in a dual on Friday, Sept. 13. The players credit Sautner with much of that success.

“Last year at this time, I know we weren’t this good,” senior swimmer Danica Dutt said. “A lot of the girls have qualified for state already. We all really like Sally. She is a very upbeat and fun coach, but still works us hard.”

“She brings a lot of energy to the team,” senior Julissa Johnson said. “They are definitely a lot of different things (compared to having Dahl as coach), but Sally has a new, fresh insight into swimming for us.”

Two of the aspects Sautner credits the team’s success to is their depth, as she has plenty of skilled swimmers eager to perform in any event, and their chemistry.

“They are extremely willing and able to swim whatever I throw them in,” Sautner said. “Just being able to be versatile and have that team feeling — even if they dread the 500 — has been awesome. It has been fun to see what they can do. They all really strive to succeed. There is no glaring going on in the pool. They really support one another.”

Leading the pack of skilled, eager swimmers is Dutt, who primarily swims the butterfly and freestyle events for the Packers. According to Sautner, she is the perfect example of what it takes to be a standout swimmer.

“Danica is a swimmer year-round,” Sautner said. “She is completely dedicated to the sport and knows what she likes and doesn’t like about it. It really speaks to her leadership qualities and what she shows the younger girls. She shows the girls who don’t have the natural talent she has what it means to be a pure swimmer.”

Despite their Bismarck dual being the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season, Sautner is glad it happened, as it taught her team a lesson in humility.

“One of the things we focus on is reacting the same whether we win or lose,” Sautner said. “It was great to have that experience in Bismarck where we lost but were still supportive. We congratulated the other team and walked away. It was definitely a learning experience.”

With just three duals and two tournaments left before playoffs, the Packers are in a good position to succeed in November, and their rookie coach expects nothing less.

“They will step up their game,” Sautner said. “We are still messing around with the lineup a lot, so they have to show me what they have so I can put the strongest swimmers in the right events for EDC and state. This has been a great learning experience for myself and, I’m sure, the girls as well. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we’ve got.”

The Packers host Fargo Shanley and Wahpeton on Friday for a 5:30 p.m. dual, and then travel to Fargo Davies for a Saturday tournament, beginning at 10:30 a.m.