KENTWOOD – When Jock Ambrose began his coaching career during the mid 1970s, sports options were limited in the community he had recently moved to after college.
The construction of a new indoor community pool, however, sent residents flocking to the water.
The Kentwood Public Schools Aquatic Center presented an opportunity for parents to introduce swimming to their children, and Ambrose would eventually reap the rewards.
“We did not have the ice arena, and soccer for boys and girls was not a sport yet,” Ambrose said. “Water polo wasn’t a high school sport either so there were fewer choices, but the draw of the pool was huge within our community.
“For eight to 10 years, young go-getter parents brought their kids a lot to swimming and it took off from there.”
Ambrose started coaching high school boys swimming in 1976, and after 38 seasons, he recently announced he would retire after this winter season after an illustrious career filled with success.
“‘I’m seeing that my energy level, as I get older, is not what it used to be,” said Ambrose, who retired from teaching four years ago.
“I never imagined I would coach forever, and my wife, Ann, and I want to do things with our kids and grandchildren. I’ve had a tremendous last year of teaching great students and great kids in the pool with wonderful parents.”
For the 65-year-old Ambrose, the decision to step down was made easier knowing that he’s leaving the program in good hands.
His successor won’t officially be named until after the season.
“We have a young man in the program who is more than ready to take over and continue to improve the program,” Ambrose said. “He’s ready to have a long career and is tremendous with the kids and parents. It would’ve been harder to walk away if I didn’t have someone like that, but I feel completely confident in where this program is going in the future and he is going to equal and surpass what we’ve had in the last several years.”
The East Kentwood boys swimming & diving program hit its peak during the 1980s, emerging as a perennial powerhouse.
The Falcons won Class A titles in 1983 and 1989 while also finishing as Finals runners-up in 1985, 1986 and 1988.
They finished in the top three seven consecutive years and became the benchmark for other programs to follow.
“There is no doubt in those years that we had some tremendous athletes,” Ambrose said.
Eric Gale was an All-American diver for East Kentwood and as a senior considered one of the top five divers in the country on the way to competing at the University of Tennessee.
Gale still holds several conference and meet records at the high school and has been the team’s diving coach the past 31 years.
“He is truly a class act, and it has been my honor to be one of the student-athletes under him and to have coached with him,” Gale said of Ambrose. “He is a tremendous human being and treats everyone he comes in contact with with respect and kindness, and that includes members of opposing teams he has faced.
“He’s the definition of what an educator should be, and he has positively affected thousands of lives in the swimming community and education.”
In 1997, Ambrose accepted the position of athletic director at East Kentwood and was away from coaching for five years.
He returned to the classroom and came back to the pool.
He also coached the girls team for three years during the 1990s, and that included coaching his youngest daughter.
As Ambrose’s coaching career continued, he began to see an influx of former athletes’ children.
“All the way through I’ve had tremendous family and community support for what we’ve tried to do, and I get one sibling after another,” Ambrose said. “Every year for the last 12 or 15 years I’ve had at least one person whose parent swam for me, and one year I had five boys on the team whose mom or dad swam for me in high school or within our club.
“It feels good when a parent brings their kid back knowing what they went through was a good place for them. The support of the parents helps you to continue the levels of success.”
East Kentwood athletic director Blaine Brumels said Ambrose has been a “true blessing to Kentwood Public Schools.”
“His hard work, dedication and commitment to our students in the classroom and the pool are unbelievable,” Brumels said. “We always have great stories about Jock, and they are always about his love of kids and being a Falcon. It is always about the students and love of the school and sport.”
Although Ambrose will remain with the program as an assistant coach for a couple years, his last MHSAA Finals directing it will take place in a couple weeks.
“We have a good group of seniors who are working hard, and we think we can get some kids to score and get to the second day,” Ambrose said. “It will be exciting for the entire program.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTO: East Kentwood coach Jock Ambrose revs up his team before the start of the 2009 Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Eastern Michigan University.
Less than 24 hours after its 2021-22 season ended, the Midland Dow boys swimming & diving team had established its goal for the next year.
Get back to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals, and put Dow back among the best swim teams in the state.
“Even at the state meet last year, we were like, ‘Where are we going to be at when we come back here?’” Dow coach Claire Fries said. “It was the day after the state meet last year, we were already in that mode for next year. The boys have worked hard to meet that goal.”
While the Finals are still more than a month away – March 10 and 11 at the Holland Aquatic Center – Dow has already punched several tickets back to the championship meet.
All three Dow relays have met the Finals-qualifying mark, and at least one Dow swimmer has hit the mark in all but one individual event. In some events, multiple Chargers have qualified.
That’s a far cry from a year ago, when nearly all of Dow’s qualifying times were met in the final meets of the season.
“We’ve had our mindset on it all year,” said Dow senior Thomas Bacigalupo. “We’ve been working on it, practicing in the morning three times a week. On a big piece of paper in our office here, it says, ‘We’re going back,’ and we’re going to succeed. We have a saying that when we can see our goals, we have a higher chance of achieving them.”
Bacigalupo is one of six returning Finals qualifiers for Dow, joining his twin brother Tyler, senior Harrison Schuster, juniors Noah Buist and Nathan Velez, and sophomore Eli Soderberg.
That core made it easy to see why the Chargers were excited well before a single qualifying time had been accomplished.
“From last year’s team, we had almost everybody come back, and our team is full of depth this year with the freshman class we brought in,” Soderberg said. “We still have all that talent and all that speed. Those expectations, last year, were for all of us just to get to the state meet and qualify top 16 and all of that. Now, this year, we can actually make a run for stuff.”
Qualifying as many swimmers for the Finals as early as they have is a good sign for the Chargers. So is winning their 20th-straight Tri-Cities championship, which they accomplished this past weekend at Saginaw Valley State.
It’s a streak that predates the birth of any current Dow swimmer, and very nearly their coach.
“I think our goal is to keep that streak going as long as we can,” Tyler Bacigalupo said. “It shows the work ethic of all the guys in the past. But we also try to think of it like every regular meet, and just go out there and do our thing.”
For Fries, who is in her fourth year with the program and third as head coach, the Tri-Cities meet is about more than just continuing the streak.
“It’s more about a celebration of our community here,” she said. “What I stress to the boys is that this is really about representing Dow and the Tri-City community, and being able to compete and race with these kids that you’re with all year round. That’s more of what I put the focus on.”
With their local dominance established again, the Chargers continue to look to establish themselves on a bigger stage, and from what Fries has seen from her swimmers this season, it’s something she thinks they’re capable of accomplishing.
“We have nine seniors on our team, and they definitely are motivated,” she said. “They wanted to show that Dow is a good swim program, and one that should be respected anywhere in the state. Our boys are really motivated to compete with anybody in the state. That drive for competition has really fueled our team and made our team really close.”
Dow has twice been Finals runner-up, in 2006 and 2008 both in LP Division 2. The Chargers felt they had a chance to win it all in 2020, but that meet never happened as it was canceled because of the pandemic.
Rather than say “what if?” regarding their freshman year, the seniors are looking forward.
“We want to be top five and really put Midland Dow back on the map,” Tyler Bacigalupo said. “That (2020) was our best chance of being on top in states, but we want to put Dow back on the map again. Our tennis team and our hockey team have done it, now we just want to bring some attention to us.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Midland Dow’s Noah Buist launches into a race during last season’s LPD2 Finals. (Middle) Thomas Bacigalupo, second from left on starting block, prepares to lead off the B heat of the 400 freestyle relay. (Photos by High School Sports Scene.)