Belgrade High will no longer be the only Class AA school in the state without a competitive swim team after the school board voted this week to approve forming a Panther team for the coming school year.

Activities Director Toby Robinson, who proposed the swim team idea to the board in June, told trustees that 34 incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors responded to a Google survey indicating they are interested in the joining the team. Robinson sent out the survey at the board’s request to determine the level of student interest.

“That’s a lot more than we anticipated in the beginning,” said Robinson, who estimated last month that five to nine students might take advantage of the first-year team opportunity.

“I knew we’d have some interest, but that blew me away,” he added.

Robinson did not survey incoming freshmen, but advisor Caty Flikkema told the board in June that 45 Belgrade kids middle school aged or younger were participating in local swim clubs in Bozeman in the spring.

“I just anticipate as Belgrade gets a high school swim team, the program would keep growing," she said.

The season will run from Nov. 9 to Feb. 12.

Though no competitive swimming pool yet exists in Belgrade, Robinson had secured lane space to rent at the Bozeman Swim Center for the smaller number of students to practice. He said Monday he had not yet contacted Swim Center officials to see if additional lane space is available to accommodate a bigger team.

“That’s a whole other area we have to look into now,” Robinson told the board, adding that if more practice space isn’t available, “maybe we do make a cut for the first year or two until we do get our own swim center."

The nonprofit Belgrade Aquatic Center has begun raising funds to build a $12.5 million facility to include a competitive cold water pool. In November, the Belgrade Park Board and City Council approved building a proposed aquatic center in Menicucci Park (the Belgrade Youth Sports Complex), subject to approval of other entities with a vested interest in the park property. The school district, city of Belgrade and the Airport Authority all gave their approval for the project to proceed, but the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has not.

Leslie Atkinson of the Belgrade Aquatic Center said DNRC let the nonprofit know some time ago that it was withholding approval, but a letter detailing the reasons was not received until this week. Belgrade Aquatic Center members have not had a meeting yet to discuss next steps, she said.

“It’s super frustrating because we thought it was merely procedural, but they kind of threw us for a loop,” Atkinson said Wednesday. The setback has reset the hoped-for timeline, she added.

“We thought we’d be well underway in the design process by now,” she said. “Unfortunately it’s a hiccup we have to deal with.”

Belgrade City Manager Ted Barkley said last week he doesn’t believe it is in the city’s best interest to assume an ownership position in the project, and school Superintendent Godfrey Saunders told the Belgrade News this week the school district has not discussed the matter.

Belgrade High School became a Class AA school at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year following more than 30 years in Class A.