Central Awaits Fast Finishes, New Home

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

February 20, 2018

PORTAGE — Thursday night was an emotional one for the Portage Central boys swimming & diving team, and not only because it was Senior Night.

The Mustangs’ 114-69 win against St. Joseph was the last meet in the 44-year-old pool located at the middle school.

“They’re building a new pool at the high school,” Central coach Jim Schafer said. “It’s bittersweet after spending 33 years coaching in this pool; (there are) a lot of great memories.

“A lot of great student athletes have been part of the program. The old pools have served Portage very well, and I’m sure the new ones will serve just as well for the future of Portage Aquatics.”

The future is bright for the program – but so is the present.

The Mustangs are ranked No. 8 in the latest Lower Peninsula Division 2 state poll heading into the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference meet Friday and Saturday at Battle Creek Lakeview.

The Mustangs have won 19 conference titles, including last year’s when they shared the crown with Kalamazoo Loy Norrix.

“There are a lot of good teams there,” Schafer said. “Mattawan gave us a really good meet last week. Norrix has a lot of good kids; so does St. Joe.

“Battle Creek Lakeview is always strong. It’s going to be a tight race between a lot of teams.”

The Mustangs, who take an 11-1 dual record into the meet, are no slouches in the pool.

After finishing eighth in LPD2 last year, they already have qualified four finalists from that team. 

Oakland University will host this year’s championship meet March 9-10.

Star power

Owen Miller, the reigning LPD2 champ in the 200-yard freestyle, is just a junior and, while nostalgic for the pool where he set two varsity records, he is looking forward to the new one.

“I’m very excited for that,” he said. “We were shown the layout of the pool a while ago, but I forget what it looked like. I remember I liked it, but I’m not sure why.

“It’s going to be a much larger pool. More locker rooms.”

Miller also finished third in the 500 freestyle at the Finals last year and swam the first leg of the 400 freestyle relay with junior Sam Weber, senior Jacob Cole and Jack Rogers, who graduated last year. They placed eighth.

“Owen’s a quiet, hard-working guy,” said Schafer, who also teaches physical education, health and sports science at the high school. “As far as our team, he’s a great freestyler, but he can also swim other events as well.

“He’s one of our go-to guys that I can go to at any meet and say I need you to swim this. We’re fortunate enough that we have a handful of those kids. We have a pretty versatile lineup.”

Swimmers on the 10th-place 200 medley relay team were Rogers, who is now a freshman on the Wayne State University swim team, Weber, Cole and junior Jack Liu.

Cole also placed 11th in the 200 IM.

“Swimming is such a mental sport,” Cole said. “People don’t understand. Once you get up on the blocks, you don’t hear anything else. When he says ‘Take your mark,’ everyone has to be quiet in the building. There’s no noise.

“All that pressure that’s on you before you go in the race, it’s all gone for that moment before the buzzer’s released. It’s just like you and the water, and it feels like practice again.”

Cole’s brother Christopher also competed for the Mustangs.

“I’ve coached several brothers, which is kinda nice because you know the families,” Schafer said.

“Jacob brings good solid leadership. He works real hard and is a great all-around kid.”

With his brother holding team records in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke, Jacob Cole has plenty of motivation.

“This year I’m trying to break his record in the 200 IM, so that’s my main goal,” he said. “I like to think I’m close. I’m at 1:58 and he’s at 1:55, so hopefully I can go 1:54 and beat it by a lot. 

“I don’t really excel in any of the major strokes, but I’m generally pretty good at every stroke,” Cole added. “My favorite event is the 400 IM which isn’t offered in high school, so I go in the 200 IM.”

Miller holds the school record in the 500 free with a time of 4:33.22 and as part of the 400 free relay (1:26.44) with Cole, Weber and Rogers. Weber was ninth in the 500 free and 10th in the 100 backstroke at the MHSAA Finals last year.

Last year, Miller swam the first leg on the relay team, which was fine with him.

“I like it because I like to go out and try my best to get a lead, and then it takes some pressure off coming to the finish,” Miller said. “I like to cheer on my teammates as they come in.

“I enjoy them both (relays and individual competition). I think relays are more fun in that it’s the team and you’re working together, and it’s more of an accomplishment if you place high. Individuals, you have a little more self pride that you did this all yourself.”

Ready for Finals

Some teams do something special to bond during tournament time, but don’t count the Mustangs among them.

“We’re not shaving our head, that’s for sure,” Miller said, laughing. “We’re going to veto that one if the seniors bring it up.

“They talked about bleaching our hair, but we kinda talked them down to frosted tips style, but we’ll see if we actually go through with it.”

Schafer said there is a reason for Portage Central’s success.

“We’ve got some pretty hard-working kids and there are two good age-group programs in the area, which help feed into our program,” he said.

“We’re fortunate enough to work with kids who already have a good swimming background when they come in.”

Cole gives credit to his coach.

“Schaf’s the best,” he said. “He’s an amazing coach. Whenever I come to the high school season, I’m always excited because the team camaraderie is really great. It’s just a fun time, and I think Schaf brings that out in everybody. One of the three goals is building relationships, and that’s one thing we say. 

“It’s great if you’re winning, but at the end of the day were you a good sport while you were doing it? Did you make friends during the season? Was it fun? What’s the point of a sport if you’re not having fun while you’re doing it?”

Schafer has just three other seniors on the team: Caleb Calnin, Ferris Ghazal and Ethan Kloosterman.

Juniors are Harrison Fitts, Alex Galer, Christian Huitema, Josh Parsons, Veeresh Rajendran, Jace Rozankovich, Sheldon Shen and Nikhil Velagalety.

Sophomores are Jacob Crump, Connor Meyer, Logan Misejka, Saad Qureshi and Matt Walsh, and freshmen are Juan Barrera, Andrew Burhans, Ethan Earle-Glinsky, Isaac Hogue, Thenuka Jayatilaka, David Jin, Lucas Miller, Ben Miller, Emery Rahrig, Liam Roehr, Max Schramm, Frans Tanade and Jim Zesiger.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Central’s Owen Miller is a reigning MHSAA Finals champion. (Middle) From top: Central coach Jim Schafer, Miller and Jacob Cole. (Below) Cole and Miller enjoy a lighter moment during a break. (Top photo by Mike Peterson, head shots by Pam Shebest and below photo by Colleen Ruggerio.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)