Dexter Builds Lead, Carries it to D2 Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 12, 2016

UNIVERSITY CENTER – Mike McHugh was floating on his back in the Saginaw Valley State University pool Saturday afternoon, water soaking his clothes and a smile covering his face.

The Dexter coach, who had spent the previous four hours wearing out his shoes walking the pool’s deck, could now relax as his Dreadnaughts had won the Lower Peninsula Division 2 boys swimming and diving championship.

“It was the best swim I’ve ever had,” said McHugh, who also led Dexter to an MHSAA title in 2012 and a runner-up finish in 2014. “These guys work. I’m thankful for all the work they put in. I’m thankful for all the support I get from home. It’s a relief. It’s been a lot of pressure being ranked No. 1 all year, so being able to finish it off feels really good.”

Behind championship swims in the 200-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke by senior Rob Zofchak, and 13 total top-eight finishes, Dexter finished with a meet-best 284 points. Warren DeLaSalle was second with 266, two-time reigning champion Birmingham Seaholm was third with 211 and Battle Creek Lakeview was fourth with 205.

“We knew coming in we had to build up a lead,” McHugh said. “DeLaSalle’s really good in the back and breast(stroke). We’re really good in the 200 (freestyle), 500 and (individual medley). We knew we had to go big, and having seven top-eight swims in those three events was huge. I had three seniors make top eight in the 200 free (Zofchak, Matt Bergdolt who was second, and David Merz who was eighth). That’s the leadership we’ve got. Three senior leaders, two of them captains, just doing everything they can.”

Dexter still had work to do in the final race of the meet, although it wasn’t much. If DeLaSalle didn’t win the 400 freestyle relay, all the Dreadnaughts needed to win the meet were to not get disqualified in the race. They finished second, one spot ahead of the Pilots. Fittingly, it was Zofchak who swam the final leg of the relay.

“It’s something special,” Zofchak said. “You feel great. Even though you’re swimming hard, you’re going as hard as you can and you’re really tired, you still feel great. Like, ‘Wow. There’s not much I can do right now to mess this up.’”

The anchor leg capped off a great day in the pool for Zofchak, who won the 200 freestyle in 1 minute, 38.23 seconds, and the 100 backstroke in 49.26 – breaking his own meet record.

“I swam pretty well,” he said. “There’s definitely things I can improve on, and I’ll keep working on those, but in general I’m pretty proud of my swims.”

Zofchak was one of three swimmers to take home two individual titles on the day, joining Grosse Pointe South’s Jacob Montague and Midland Dow’s Nehemiah Mork.

Montague won the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke with LP Division 2 meet records of 1:47.4 and 53.93, respectively. It was the second straight year he’d won MHSAA titles in those events.

As Montague swam to commanding leads in both races, spectators watched in awe, some even counting the number of times he came out of the water in the breaststroke and marveling at how infrequently he did so.

“My freshman year, I only qualified for one event at the state meet and I didn’t even make it to finals,” Montague said. “I never thought that I’d be able to compete at a level like this. These past couple years I’ve given everything I can in the pool, every practice, every day. I just give 100 percent, just trying to get better. When everything pays off in the end, it’s just a great feeling.”

Mork was also a repeat champion in both of his events. He won the 50 freestyle in 20.83 seconds, one hundredth of a second ahead of Seaholm’s Liam Little. Mork won the 100 in 45.43 seconds.

“I could kind of see that (Little) was close to me – I had no idea it was a hundredth of a second close,” Mork said. “I saw him gliding a little bit; that’s when I knew I had to get a good finish, and I touched him out. But then everybody started cheering and I thought, ‘Aw shoot, I lost.’

“Then I looked up and it was a hundredth of a second and I still won, so I’ll take it.”

Also repeating as champion was Seaholm diver Sebastian Fay, who won with 479.4 points. He had a commanding lead coming into the final dives, but didn’t rest on his laurels.

“It puts more (pressure) on me, because diving is a sport where anything can happen,” Fay said. “I try not to let the lead get in my head because then I’ll just relax. With that dive especially, that last dive, I need to go after it, and if I relax I’m going to screw it up.

“So honestly, I felt a little more nervous at the end. My heart was pounding pretty hard, so I had to calm down.”

Seaholm won the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, while DeLaSalle won the 200 medley relay. DeLaSalle’s P.J. Desmet won the 100 butterfly in 51.21, while Rochester Adams’ Graham Miotke won the 500 freestyle in 4:35.64.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch during Saturday’s LP Division 2 Finals at Saginaw Valley State University. (Middle) A diver arches during competition. (Below) Dexter poses with its 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.)