Cranes Continue D3 Dominance in 3-Peat

March 12, 2016

By Dan Stickradt
Special for Second Half

YPSILANTI — Located in talent-rich and depth-laden Oakland County, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood often has to depart the county’s borders to claim championships in boys swimming and diving.

Found lurking in the shadows of Division 1 and Division 2 state powerhouses such as Birmingham Brother Rice and Birmingham Seaholm, plus a host of other highly-regarded programs nearby, the Cranes have found state-meet success in Division 3.

Tons of success.

Cranbrook Kingswood added its long list of MHSAA titles Saturday inside the confines of Eastern Michigan University’s Jones Natatorium. The Cranes out-dueled East Grand Rapids to finish on top with 352 points and earn their third straight Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship.

“Swimming in Oakland County — we don’t win the county meet. But once we leave the county, we realize that we can swim with anybody in (Division 3),” offered Cranbrook Kingswood coach Karl Hodgson. “There are so many good teams there (in the county). It really does help prepare you for the state meet.” 

On the strength of eight victories, East Grand Rapids finished second with 315 points. Chelsea, last year’s runner-up, swam third (195), while Holland Christian (188), Hamilton (127), Grand Rapids Christian (122), Otsego (118), Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (115), Detroit Country Day (107) and Milan (88) rounded out the top 10 in the team scoring.

A total of 32 schools reached the scoring column. 

Cranbrook Kingswood landed finishers in 27 of the 192 total slots over the 12 events, including four top-16 placers in both the 100-yard breaststroke and 500 freestyle, which helped the Cranes take a lead they would not relinquish.

“I knew (depth) would be our only shot,” Hodgson admitted. “I knew EGR had the studs, and they sure proved that today, didn’t they? I tip my hat to them and their coach. They did a great job with (winning eight events). That’s what it came down to. But so did we. We swam so great (Friday) to put us in position. Really out of our minds. To duplicate it, I knew it would be tough. But the guys sucked it up and got it done.”

Cranbrook only won a single event, as senior Giorgio DelGrasso touched first in the 100 breaststroke in an LP Division 3 meet record time of 55.92. Cranbrook won in a landslide last season (430-299.5 over Chelsea), but had stiffer challenges this year, much like 2014 when the Cranes edged Chelsea (297-273.33)

“It feels really good, especially my senior year and (the fact) that it was my last high school race,” said DelGrasso. “But this is not about me. This is about my coaches and my teammates.” 

“We knew it was going to be a good race because Christian Bart is a heck of a swimmer,” smiled Hodgson, who was dumped into the pool in celebration moments earlier. “But Giorgio wanted to break 56 (seconds) all year, and it was his last shot. He came through. That was good; we needed that hit. You could see the breaststroke was a big event for us; we had four guys there in the top eight. That was a big plus for us.” 

East Grand Rapids won eight of the 12 events, including four of the first five in opening up a 125-122 lead.

The Pioneers have won more 100 MHSAA team titles across all sports, with more than 50 runner-up finishes going back to the 1920s — making East Grand Rapids one of the most storied high schools in MHSAA lore in terms of overall postseason success. But this time, a disqualification hurt the Pioneers’ chances. 

“We swam great overall today in the finals,” said veteran East Grand Rapids coach Butch Briggs. “We had a lot of wins. But what I am really proud of is the way we bounced back. We were resilient. We were disqualified Friday in the 200 medley relay and lost those points. That was the first event. But we didn’t let it get to us. Instead, we came back and swam great in the finals.”

Andy MacGregor of East Grand Rapids defended his title in the 200 freestyle, breaking the 1:40-barrier with a 1:39.79 effort. MacGregor later added a win in the 100 freestyle (45.70). 

“I didn’t put too much pressure on myself,” said MacGregor. “I went 1:40 in the prelims (of the 200 free) and I wanted to shave a few one-hundredths (of a second) and get down in the 1:39s. I wanted to swim faster on the final day and was able to accomplish that.”

Sophomore Christian Bart placed in four events (two individual and as part of two relays), including a win in the 200 individual medley (1:50.61).

“I think, being a sophomore, this is a great accomplishment for me. I didn’t expect it,” said Bart, who was a part of the Pioneers team last season that finished third. “Our goal was to have our best meet, go out there and swim the best we can. We were better than last year. We were third last year and second this year. We hope to contend next (season).”

Bart, Hein, MacGregor and Cade Vruggink teamed up for a win in the 200 freestyle relay (1:23.02), setting another meet record.

“We stacked this relay with our fastest swimmers,” smiled Hein. “We really wanted to win that event.”

In the final event, Vruggink, Christopher Steers, Joe Murphy and MacGregor joined forces for a 3:10.40 effort in the 400 freestyle relay for the Pioneers’ eighth win of the day.

Hein, a senior, out-sprinted a tight group to win the 50 freestyle (20.81) and came back to upend defending champion Alec Nyboer of Hamilton to win the 100 butterfly (49.18). Nyboer finished second in 49.24. 

“I knew it would be close,” said Hein. “I really had to push. It feels great beating (the reigning champ).” 

EGR’s Grant Williams continued his school’s trend by winning the one-meter diving competition with 443.45 points.

Chelsea, second as a team a year ago, pulled the first upset of the day. The Bulldogs stunned top-seeded Cranbrook in the 200 medley relay, as anchor Joey Manger used a strong kick to help his unit prevail with a 1:34.56 clocking. 

Kurt Jolly, Zach Lee and Lee Argir joined Mangner on the medals stand. Cranbrook was second in 1:34.69.

“I knew that Joey Mangner is one of the best sprinters in the state and that he would catch him,” said Zach Lee. “We all did our part, and Joey finished it.” 

Holland Christian sophomore Skyler Cook-Weeks finished second in the 500 freestyle as a freshman and overpowered the pack this year to post a 4:31.48 effort, also a meet record.

“Last year I was second, so this year I really wanted to come here and win,” said Cook-Weeks. “I got down to around 4:31, so now I want go after 4:25 next year.” 

Grand Rapids Catholic Central senior Joey Puglessi set the LP Division 3 Finals record in the prelims Friday in the 100 backstroke (49.89) and repeated as champion in the event Saturday with a 50.07 clocking.

“It feels great to get the record and defend my title,” said Puglessi, who has signed to swim at the University of Buffalo. “You always want to go out with a (great effort) at your last high school meet.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood swimmer competes during Saturday’s LP Division 3 Finals. (Middle) A competitor swims in the backstroke championship race. (Below) The Cranes pose with their championship trophy. (Click to see more at

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.)