By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
YPSILANTI – It certainly was not by design, but it seemed like the Birmingham Brother Rice swimmers did not want to take the top step on the winning podium without a teammate by their side.
Brother Rice led from start to finish Saturday in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Swimming and Diving Finals at Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University
And the Warriors did it without a single individual champion.
“We have done that quite a few times in the past,” Brother Rice coach Mike Venos said. “It’s almost a tradition around here, and it makes my job easy because these kids know everybody gets to contribute.
“I think that’s what makes us strong. They come in and they are mentored that it’s a whole team effort.”
Last year, Brother Rice dominated the meet, winning by an amazing 143 points. This year, the Warriors finished with a 111-point margin over runner-up Holland West Ottawa.
Brother Rice opened the meet by repeating as champion in the 200-yard medley relay. Mark Blinstrub, Drew Grady, Gust Kouvaris and Jack Kennedy won in 1 minute, 31.68 seconds – more than a second faster than last year’s winning time.
Brother Rice would not return to the top spot on the podium until the final event – the 400 freestyle relay. Kouvaris, sophomore Rudy Aguilar, junior Bobby Powrie and Blinstrub made it a repeat championship in 3:02.58.
Between the two winning relays, the Warriors had seven second-place finishes in the eight individual swimming events. Kouvaris was second in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, Blinstrub was second in the 200 individual medley and 100 free, Aguilar was second in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle and Grady was second in the 100 breaststroke.
“It’s good to win as a team,” Kouvaris said. “We’re a family. We all swim together, and we all train together. For me in the 100 backstroke, standing next to one of my teammates (Alex Margherio, who finished fourth) was the best feeling in the world.
“It feels amazing to be standing up there with these guys.”
Blinstrub was runner-up to two-time champion Jack Walsh in the 200 IM and two-time champion Tabahn Afrik in the 100 freestyle.
“The guys I finished second to are unbelievable,” said Blinstrub, who plans to swim at the University of Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t upset me at all. They are going to Notre Dame and Stanford. They’re incredible guys and incredible swimmers, so to get second to them is fine.
“I do what I do for my team. I did my best.”
Aguilar’s second-place finishes included setting a school-record in the 200 freestyle (1:39.57).
“It has been a pleasure swimming for Brother Rice,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to swim the 400 free relay - that’s basically our relay – and training has been really hard, and it showed.
“As a sophomore I’m really happy with my times. I was really happy with that 200 freestyle, breaking the school record.”
As dominant as Brother Rice was, the meet’s top individual swimmers were Walsh, a Detroit Catholic Central senior who won the 200 IM and 100 backstroke, and Devon Nowicki, a Lake Orion junior who took the 100 butterfly and 100 breaststroke.
Walsh, who plans to continue his swimming career at Stanford, was a repeat winner in the backstroke and improved on his second-place finish from last year in the IM. His winning time of 1:47.26 set an all-division meet record, and his 48.48 in the backstroke set an LP Division 1 meet record.
He did not put the records above the championships.
“It’s always nice to have a record, but a championship is something that can’t be taken away,” he said. “It feels great to have a season of hard work pay off.”
Nowicki’s championships were the first of his career. Last year, he swam distance events, but with a change of coaches, he concentrated more on events that would benefit him in the 200 IM. He was fifth in the 500 freestyle and ninth in the 200 freestyle last year.
“It was different being on top of the podium instead of the lower ones,” Nowicki said. “We changed coaches, and we wanted to focus on something completely different and try something new and see what works.”
Nowicki’s winning time of 53.59 in the breaststroke set an all-division meet record, and he won the butterfly in 48.92.
“The 100 fly I’ve kind of been around but not prominent in, but the 100 breast I’ve been around my whole life,” he said. “Winning the fly was like a happy accident I guess. I’ve always been decent at all the strokes. We just tried to focus more on the fly this year to expand my IM abilities.”
The other double-winner was Holland West Ottawa senior Tabahn Afrik, who won the 50 freestyle in 20.26 seconds – an LP Division 1 meet record – and the 100 freestyle in 44.06. He was the defending champion in both the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle but decided to scrap the 200 and try the 50 this year.
“Honestly, there was no thought going into it other than to just try something new,” said Afrik, who will attend Notre Dame on a full scholarship in the fall. “I have the 100 and the 200 under my belt, so I thought this year I might as well go for the 50, and that’s what we did.”
Afrik also swam the anchor leg for Holland West Ottawa in the 200 freestyle relay. The team finished fourth, but Afrik’s split was an amazing 19.67 seconds, which would have been an all-division meet record had he done it from the first leg of the relay.
“That is the first time I got into the 19s,” he said. “It definitely felt good – a huge milestone that I accomplished. I left it all in the pool. I can’t complain.”
Rockford junior Jake Herremans put on a show in the diving portion of the event. He set a meet record with 528.45 points – the previous record was 494.40 – and left himself looking for more.
“I want to keep hitting those harder dives and make them crisp and clean and possibly try to get my degree of difficulty up a little more,” he said. “I tried to focus on myself and block everything else out. No distractions while I’m on the board, just me in my little happy place.”
Will Brenner of Ann Arbor Huron was runner-up in diving with 500.15 points, and he also was runner-up to Afrik in the 50 freestyle in the event immediately preceding the diving. Brenner’s final dive of an inward two-and-a-half scored in the 7s and 8s and had Herremans clapping as he stood on the board preparing to make his dive.
“That dive was outstanding,” Herremans said. “It was the best dive I’ve ever seen him do. I have to give him so much credit because he did awesome. He’s a great diver and a great kid. I love competing with him.”
Afrik also complimented Brenner and said he was not so sure that Brenner was not going to beat him in the 50 freestyle.
“He had me for the majority of the race,” Afrik said. “I’m not going to lie, I was really impressed with the way he swam. I just turned it up and got him.”
Brenner seemed to take it all in stride.
“I thought it was a great success,” he said. “I thought I nailed the dives. I’m very happy.”
The other individual champions were Kai Williams of Ann Arbor Pioneer in the 200 freestyle (1:38.10) and Trayton Saladin of Bridgman in the 500 freestyle (4:30.99). Williams also swam the anchor leg for Ann Arbor Pioneer as it won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:23.68, breaking the LP Division 1 Finals record.
“We were hoping to get the all-division record, but it’s hard to complain with this,” he said. “The 200 freestyle was my first win ever, so it was exciting.
“I wanted to take it out fast and hold the lead the entire race.”
However, with all the stars and records that dominated the meet, in the end it was the depth of Birmingham Brother Rice that ruled the day. The Warriors had 16 individuals seeded and ended up with 11 entries in the Finals and 14 entries in the consolation races.
“I think we had a lot more underclassmen contribute, and we had so many more kids in the consolation finals this year,” Venos said. “It fired everybody up, watching those kids have their day. It was fantastic.
“It’s a tribute to what these kids have built for themselves.”
PHOTOS: (Top) A Brother Rice swimmer competes in the 100 butterfly; five Warriors scored among the top 16 in the event. (Middle) Holland West Ottawa's Mitch Plaggemars swims to 14th place in the 100 breaststroke. (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.)