Brother Rice Rides Momentum To Top of D1

March 8, 2014

By Geoff Mott
Special to Second Half

UNIVERSITY CENTER – Birmingham Brother Rice coach Mike Venos realized his boys swimming and diving team had the talent to win an MHSAA title after the Warriors finished runner-up to four-time champion Saline at last year’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals.

“The way we ended last year gave us some big momentum,” Venos said. “You saw the look in their eyes. They were committed from that point into doing something special.”

Brother Rice cruised to its first LP Division 1 championship since 2007 on Saturday at Saginaw Valley State University’s Gerstacker Regional Aquatic Center, winning with 345 points. Livonia Stevenson finished runner-up with 202 while Holland West Ottawa finished third (191), Ann Arbor Pioneer fourth (185) and Bloomfield Hill fifth at 136 points.

Brother Rice won all three relays and took advantage of depth throughout its lineup to win the third championship in Venos’s 16th season as the Warriors coach. It’s the eighth boys swimming and diving title in Brother Rice history.

“We don’t shoot for state championships,” Venos said. “We shoot for our best times. We can only control what we can control.

“Every practice was a state meet. They beat each other up, and it showed how hard they’ve worked for this today.”

Joe Krause earned the lone individual title for the Warriors, winning the 50-yard freestyle in 20.63 seconds. He joined juniors Gust Kouvaris and Mark Blinstrub and sophomore Bobby Powrie in winning the 400 freestyle relay. The group broke the MHSAA all-Finals record with a 3:02.06 finish.

Krause also teamed with Powrie, senior Bradford Jones and junior Jack Kennedy in winning the 200 freestyle relay in 1:25.10, outkicking the Ann Arbor Pioneer relay team by a tenth of a second.

“We don’t go looking to win meets, just go out and swim our fastest to do the best that we can,” Krause said. “We had a fast week of practice, and we just wanted to swim to the best of our ability. We’ve shown the ability to excel all season.”

Krause credits the leadership he learned as a freshman in helping shape this Warriors team into a championship contender. Of the 33 swimmers and divers on the team, 16 are freshman.

“It’s been seven years since we’ve won a title, so this is pretty awesome,” Krause said. “When I was a freshman, those seniors had great leadership skills and they knew what it would take to get us back to the top, and that helped.

“I tried to emulate the peers before me. We had a challenge with so many freshmen, and they were ready for it.”

Kouvaris, Blinstrub, Jones and Drew Grady kicked off the Finals with a championship in the 200 medley relay, winning in 1:32.77.

Matching up relays was Venos’ greatest challenge.

“We have a very deep team and there can be a number of different options with the relay teams,” Venos said. “It made it pretty fun because we had all those options.

“A turning point this season came at the Oakland County Meet. We stepped up and I was really surprised at what we could do as a team. Once we got to this weekend, as coaches, we just got out of the way and let these guys have fun.”

Livonia Stevenson senior Nick Arakelian recorded an all-Finals record in the 200 individual medley, winning with a 1:47.47 to edge the previous record by nearly four-tenths of a second. 

Arakelian went on to win the 500 freestyle with an LP Division 1 Final record time of 4:24.84. He also helped the Livonia Stevenson 200 medley relay and 400 freestyle relay teams to runner-up finishes.

“The records were definitely a goal that I kept in mind, but when I get here I got relaxed and had fun with my team,” Arakelian said. “I knew I had a shot, and I was a little jumpy during preliminaries. But I settled down.” 

Arakelian, who will head to Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., next year to swim collegiately, was in seventh place after completing the butterfly portion in the first event of the 200 IM. He tied the leader after the backstroke and easily pulled away through the breaststroke and freestyle.

“You don’t see much of a crossover (for swimmers) in the 200 IM and 500 freestyle, so I’m pretty proud of myself,” Arakelian said. “I realized I needed to relax out there, and it worked.”

Holland West Ottawa junior Tabahn Afrik captured a pair of Finals titles that eluded him as a sophomore. After runner-up finishes in the 50 and 100 freestyle events last year, Afrik won the 100 with an LP Division 1 meet record 43.9-second finish. He also won the 200 freestyle in 1:38.18 and helped West Ottawa to third-place finishes in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

The two individual titles were the first for West Ottawa’s program, and its third-place team finish was the highest in school history. 

“Every single person has contributed to this,” Afrik said. “We are a big family at this school.

“And personally, I’m very proud of the two state championships because it’s never happened here. As a junior, I’ve helped push this team, and this day has been our goal. I’ve dreamed about this since I was a freshman, and the competition definitely helps. They pushed me to be my best today, and I’m grateful.” 

The closest race of the day was the 100 backstroke, where Detroit Catholic Central junior Jack Walsh touched the wall four-hundredths of a second before Monroe sophomore Cameron Craig. Walsh won with in 49.08 seconds, while Craig – who set the LP Division I meet record with a 48.9 in the preliminary heat on Friday – finished with a 49.12.

“I felt like I was right next to him for the final 25 yards,” Craig said. “I had a couple people tell me that I had won. It was that close. Now I’ve got to train harder to beat him next year.” 

Craig didn’t leave empty-handed. He won the 100 butterfly in 48.95, edging Brother Rice’s Kouvaris.

“I think I had a good finish,” Craig said. “I didn’t finish with my best times, but I put a lot of effort into this meet. I’ve been training since last year for it.” 

Oakland University-bound John Schihl captured a 100 breaststroke in 55.39 seconds, missing the LP Division 1 meet record by eight hundredths of a second. Schihl finished second last year in the event in Division 3 while swimming for Lahser before it and Andover merged this fall.

“I had higher expectations, but this was bigger of a meet than we are used to,” Schihl said. “I did pretty well at keeping my focus. I knew this would be tough when we moved up to Division 1. It was a hard transition and a lot of practice to get here.”

Rockford sophomore Jake Herremans won the diving title with a personal-best score of 458, while Saline freshman Dakota Hurbis finished runner-up with 433.25 points. Herremans finished ninth at the meet as a freshman. 

“I was one away from all-state and all-conference honors last year,” Herremans said. “I knew I’d be toward the top this year. I didn’t miss a dive after the preliminary dives.”

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PHOTOS: (Top) A swimmer celebrates after finishing a race Saturday at Saginaw Valley State University. (Middle) The Brother Rice swimming and diving team celebrates with its championship trophy. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 4, 2024

Aaron Thomas easily could have decided that swimming wasn't going to be part of his life.

Mid-MichiganThe DeWitt senior could've pieced together some combination of his other entertainment interests to fill his time. For instance, he could have spent more time with friends or immersed himself in video games. Or maybe devoted more time to a flirtation with golf or playing trumpet in the school band. Thomas also could have gained a head start on college and his ultimate goal of a degree in biomedical engineering.

Considering the lifetime of challenges he's faced in swimming, those seemed more tenable options.

Instead, Thomas chose the tougher path.

"My life is swimming," he said. "I've been in water so much, I've never looked back."

By "looking back," Thomas means ignoring a disability that would have turned many youngsters away from the pool. He was born without 65 percent of his pointer finger on his left hand and with a thumb that's only about 90-percent intact. The other three fingers stop at the top of the knuckle. As DeWitt coach Brock Delaney explains, much of a swimmer’s success comes from the power of fingers and subsequent strength in the hands – and without that combination, swimmers are at an immediate disadvantage.

But rather than letting those obstacles keep him high and dry, Thomas has excelled and finished this season with a historic first. He qualified for the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals in the 200-yard individual medley and finished 29th and also competed in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition event and topped all divisions with a time of 54.07 seconds. In doing so, Thomas became the first competitor to swim that combination at a Finals meet.

Thomas additionally this winter made DeWitt's Century Club of swimmers who have amassed 100 points in a season for the second time, and he has earned National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (NISCA) Paralympic All-American honors in the 200-yard freestyle (1:56.64), 200 IM (2:08.21), and 500 free (5:11.58). He also competes in Paralympic swimming as part of the Mid-Michigan Aquatics Club.

To some, the quest for those achievements likely would seem a long and difficult path. But to Thomas, it's business as usual. A disability? What disability, offers Thomas, whose ultimate goal is swimming in the 2028 Summer Paralympics in Los Angeles.

"I've always loved swimming," he said. "When I'm in the water, I never worry about anything. I just feel free."

Thomas posted the fastest time across all divisions in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition at this season’s Finals. And Thomas has found a way to even the playing field, Delaney said.

"He's such a hard worker who has made up for a left-hand deficiency," Delaney said. "He's legit, a strong kid who loves to swim. "

But determination can take a swimmer only so far. Delaney said Thomas, classified as an S10 swimmer for Paralympic events, has developed physical strategies to increase his performance. In the backstroke, for instance, Thomas swims with his left hand underwater to help in propulsion. For speed, Thomas tries to keep his body on his "power side."

The rest, Delaney said, is simply heart.

"He moved here from Alma between his eighth grade and freshmen years," he said. "If not our hardest worker, he's in the top three. He's got something not all athletes have."

Thomas said one of the chief reasons he spends so much time around pools is the type of person he finds there. He describes people who combine encouragement and understanding with a will to compete despite any perceived physical shortcomings. What he's learned from them not only explains his swim career, but teaches valuable life lessons as well.

In fact, Thomas' career plans, beginning at Hope College in the fall, include securing a degree in biomedical engineering with an ultimate plan to help build prosthetics.

"Getting to know people in the prosthetic field really interests me," he said. "Swimming and prosthetics have been a nice tie-in with school. Prosthetics ties it all together for me."

Thomas said he can think of only a single instance where he questioned whether he should follow his love of swimming. But that thought quickly passed, and he's thrown himself into the sport ever since.

"I wouldn't trade my disability for the world," he said. "It's given me so many opportunities. The whole club and school thing and getting to the state meet never would have happened.”

Thomas will swim at Hope, and his goal is to qualify for the 200 IM at the Los Angeles Paralympic games. Thomas estimates he's within 15 seconds of qualifying in that meet's long course event.

"It's achievable," he said. "For sure it's doable."

Whether he makes it to Los Angeles or if his swim career quietly winds down, Thomas, who describes himself as competitive, said he still will have gained something for which everyone strives, athlete or not.

"Water has always been a safe spot for me," he said. "I think I've always used it as kind of a break from life. It helps clear my head.

“I've always been taught that you get out of work what you put into it. Work always pays off in the end. I've always remembered that.”

PHOTOS (Top) Aaron Thomas races for the DeWitt swimming & diving team. (Middle) Thomas posted the fastest time across all divisions in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition at this season’s Finals. (Photos provided by the DeWitt swimming & diving program and Thomas family.)