By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half
HOLLAND – The Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood boys swimming & diving team made it four straight championships at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals, but this title took every point the Cranes could muster.
Cranbrook Kingswood finished first at the event that took place at the Holland Aquatics Center with a total of 268 points. Only 41 separated the top four teams. East Grand Rapids, last year’s runner-up, placed second with 255 points, followed by Holland Christian in third with 241.5 and Chelsea in fourth with 227 points.
Cranes coach Karl Hodgson knew coming in that any number of teams could come away with the first-place trophy.
“Division 3 is a lot tougher the last few years,” Hodgson said, “especially this year. In the past, there would be two or three teams that had a chance to win it. This year, there were four, five and even six teams that were very tough and had a shot at it.”
Making the task even tougher for Cranbrook Kingswood this season was the number of talented seniors who graduated from last year’s team.
This title was a major accomplishment for this year’s seniors.
“This is surreal,” said Cranbrook Kingswood senior captain Giorgio Guttilla. “It’s an awesome feeling to win it four years in a row.”
Guttilla credits the team’s can-do attitude for making the difference on the final day.
“The difference was we all had a great attitude going into the Finals,” Guttilla said. “We were determined to win, and it just showed.”
Balance also played a key role in Cranbrook Kingswood’s win. Al three of the Cranes’ relay teams placed in the top three. The 200-yard medley relay team of sophomore Oliver Cafferty, senior Matthew Yang, junior Kevin Hao and senior Michael McLaughlin placed second, as did the 400 free relay team of junior Lucas Misra, Eric Youshao, Hao and Cafferty.
Cafferty claimed the lone individual title for Cranbrook Kingswood as he won the 100 backstroke by almost two full seconds with a time of 50.72.
“It was a phenomenal feeling,” Cafferty said. “It was crazy getting out of the pool and having everybody cheering.”
A sophomore, Cafferty has been a part of two team championships and points to his teammates’ camaraderie as being a key to success.
“Winning back-to-back state titles is a great feeling,” Cafferty said. “For the seniors it has got to be a crazy feeling. We put in tons of work this year. I think we worked harder this year than any other year. Everybody cheers each other on, and everyone wants to see each other succeed. I was not as sure that we would win it this year. I thought we might finish second or third, but to come in first feels amazing.”
East Grand Rapids provided Cranbrook Kingswood with its biggest challenge. The second-place Pioneers received a huge effort from junior Christian Bart. Bart not only won two events, but he also set multiple LP Division 3 Finals records in the process. Bart captured the 50 freestyle in a time of 20.64 and then won the 100 breaststroke in a time of 55.82.
“I’ve been working all year for this,” Bart said. “I’m very happy to have set the records. The competition was very tough, and that is why I posted those times. The races were so close and the times were so good because of the competition.”
East Grand Rapids also picked up plenty of points in the diving competition. Senior Grant Williams took first place as he scored a total of 456.65 points. Pioneers freshman Nick Merritt placed fourth with a total of 428.05.
Holland Christian gave the hometown fans plenty to cheer about as the Maroons placed third as a team.
Junior Skyler Cook-Weeks was one of two individual champions for Holland Christian. Cook-Weeks defended his championship in the 500 freestyle as he took first place with a time of 4:26.96. That time also broke his Division 3 Finals record set last year.
“Last year it was a surreal feeling for me,” Cook-Weeks said. “This year it was a different feeling. What made it special was having my teammate swimming with me. Luke Mason was right behind me, and he finished second so Holland Christian placed one-two.”
With two titles to his credit, Cook-Weeks not only has his sights set on another title next season but also a new record-breaking time.
“I want to try and get 4:19 next year,” Cook-Weeks said.
While Mason placed second to his teammate in the 500, the Holland Christian junior won his individual title earlier in the day. Mason, in his first year with the Holland Christian team after previously swimming on club teams, turned in a time of 1:52.79 to win the 200 individual medley.
“It’s just a great feeling,” Mason said. “It’s great being a part of a great team like this with great teammates. It’s been a great experience.”
Both Mason and Cook-Weeks were also part of a relay team that captured a title for Holland Christian. Along with sophomores Jacob Heeres and Riley VanMeter, Mason and Cook-Weeks helped the 400 free relay team to the win with a time of 3:07.25.
Senior Rudy Aguilar of Pontiac Notre Dame Prep also claimed a pair of individual titles and set a Division 3 record in the process. Aguilar won the 200 freestyle in a record time of 1:37.37 and also the 100 freestyle in a time of 45.71.
Aguilar edged a familiar face on his way to winning the 200, Cook-Weeks of Holland Christian by less than a second.
“I’ve known Skylar a long time and we’ve been swimming against each other in high school the last two years,” Aguilar said. “The atmosphere here is great and racing against each other made our times faster. I give all the glory to God. I also want to thank everyone who has helped me and my coaches and teammates at Notre Dame.”
Byron Center junior Nolan Briggs captured his first-ever Finals title when he won the 100 butterfly in a time of 49.85. The title was especially sweet for Briggs, who stopped swimming for a while before high school.
“I actually didn’t swim for a year,” Briggs said. “We moved from Holland to Byron Center and then coach Kimble (Don Kimble) got me back in it my freshman year. It was a great feeling being up on that podium. When I was younger I would come here for the Finals. To win my first state title is a great feeling.”
Chelsea was led to its fourth-place finish by its relay teams – the 200 medley relay as seniors Kurt Jolly, Zach Lee, Lee Argir and Joey Mangner turned in a time of 1:34.71, and the 200 free relay as the team of Lee, sophomore Wes Wickens, senior Collin Babycz and Mangner turned in a time of 1:25.21.
PHOTOS: Cranbrook Kingswood’s Oliver Cafferty swims the 100 backstroke Saturday. (Middle) East Grand Rapids’ Christian Bart works toward a meet record 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.)