By Greg Chrapek
Special for Second Half
HOLLAND – Although they were led by a trio of seniors who each won two individual events, a fourth consecutive MHSAA title was anything but a sure thing for Saline at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final at the Holland Aquatic Center.
Saline’s big three of seniors Adam Whitener, Josh Ehrman and David Boland came up big when they needed, and every point proved valuable as the Hornets edged fellow Division 1 powerhouse Birmingham Brother Rice by three points, 313-309, to claim their fourth consecutive title.
With points at a premium, the Hornets rallied and in the final event finished in fourth place in the 400 freestyle relay to clinch the championship.
“There was a lot of pressure, but I actually enjoy it,” Ehrman said. “We knew we had to go fast in every race, and we had to win. When you are put under that kind of pressure, you know you have to perform.”
Ehrman did his part and then some for the Hornets as he won two individual titles and was part of two relay teams that also won.
Ehrman teamed up with Boland and fellow seniors Michael Bundas and Lucas Allen to start things off in a big way Saturday by winning the 200-yard medley relay in an all-division Finals record time of 1:30.01.
Ehrman also won the 200-yard IM in an all-division Finals record time of 1:47.86 and broke his own all-division record time in the 100-yard breaststroke, winning in 55.31.
His success was something the Hornets were able to count on like clockwork since he joined the team his freshman season.
“Josh is a champion swimmer,” Saline coach Todd Brunty said. “The only races he lost during his high school career were two races his freshman year to a nationally-ranked swimmer.”
The Hornets’ key race Saturday was the ninth, the 200-yard freestyle relay. Ehrman teamed up with Bundas, Whitener and fellow senior Stefan Koberl to capture the championship in 1:23.92, another LP Division 1 meet record.
“When we won the 200-free relay, our guys believed they could do it,” Brunty said. “The door was still open, and that was all we needed was that crack to get through.
“Being a four-time state champion feels pretty good right now. It was a hard-fought win. Brother Rice is a very good team, and to go through the adversity that we did on Friday says a lot about this team. We didn’t have some of our best swims on Friday, and we had about 40 points to make up going into today. But the guys stayed steady and stayed strong, and they were able to overcome that deficit.”
Another key to success for the Hornets was the performance of their divers. Three Saline divers finished among the top 11, giving the team key points needed to erase the deficit.
Senior diver Sam Blair finished second overall to senior Nick Nicoletti of Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern. Nicoletti totaled 442.30 points, while Blair finished with 428.50. Senior Dustin Wall finished sixth in diving for Saline, while freshman Alex Calder placed 11th.
They complemented well the efforts of the trio of senior leaders who amazingly were part of eight of the 12 race championships.
Whitener capped his career at Saline by winning the 200-yard freestyle in 1:38.31 and taking the 100-yard freestyle in 44.65.
Boland also claimed two races and set two new Division 1 meet records in the process. He won the 100-yard backstroke in a record time of 49.75 and captured the 100-yard butterfly in a record time of 48.59. Boland also swam the first leg of the 200-yard medley relay that, in finishing first, set the tone for the day.
“I just wanted to get out and get everybody pumped up,” Boland said. “I wanted to get out and get out as far as I could. I wanted to get everybody pumped up and ready to go.”
Saline senior Michael Bundas added to the medal haul as he won the 50-yard freestyle in 20.96.
“I was really happy for Michael,” Brunty said. “He gave up baseball to focus on his swimming. He loves baseball, and it takes total dedication for someone to do that. He really stepped up for us today.”
Not all of the records at Saturday’s Finals were broken by Saline swimmers. Runner-up Birmingham Brother Rice’s 400-yard freestyle relay team set an all-division record. Senior Patrick Nodland, sophomores Gust Kouvaris and Mark Blinstrub and junior Joe Krause came into the meet seeded fourth, but saved their best for last as they turned in a time of 3:03.78.
“They really stepped up,” Brother Rice coach Mike Venos said. “We have one senior on that relay, and he inspires the team. Patrick Nodland just does a great job of getting everyone inspired and ready to go. I never, ever doubt my swimmers. I know what they are capable of.”
Brother Rice pushed Saline to the limit and carried on the program’s history of excellence. The Warriors have won eight MHSAA team titles since 1994, their most recent in 2007.
Livonia Stevenson junior Nick Arakelian also set a Division 1 meet record en route to winning the 500-yard freestyle. Arakelian, in his first year of high school swimming, won in a time of 4:27.75.
A nationally-ranked club swimmer, Arakelian decided to go out for high school swimming this season, and was more than happy he did.
“Oh I’m very happy I decided to come out,” Arakelian said. “I just decided to try it for a change. It’s a lot of fun, and I like the team atmosphere.”
Arakelian helped Stevenson to a third-place finish as a team as he also took second place in the 200-yard IM and was a part of the 200-yard medley relay and 400-yard free relay teams that also finished second.
“This was an incredible feeling,” Arakelian said. “I’m planning on coming out next year, and I’m very excited about next year.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Saline swimmers celebrate while en route to their fourth-straight MHSAA team title. (Middle) A Saline swimmer races Saturday at Holland Aquatics Center. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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 email@example.com 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.)