Dexter Extends Finals Win Streak to 4

By Jason Schmitt
Special for

March 9, 2019

YPSILANTI – It was only fitting that Casey Dolen was the last swimmer in the pool for Dexter on Saturday at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Boys Swimming & Diving Finals at Eastern Michigan University. 

He was a member of the Dreadnaughts’ 2016 championship team. And he was there in 2017 and 2018 as well. 

Dolen was the first to touch the wall in the 400-yard freestyle relay, helping his team win the event and lock down the program’s fourth straight Division 2 championship. He, along with senior Niklas Eberly and sophomores Michael Baumann and Clayton Kinnard, finished in a time of 3:06.84, comfortably beating out runner-up Birmingham Groves – which finished second overall in the team standings.

“This is a great group of kids, and to send these seniors out with four in a row is really special,” said Dexter head coach Michael McHugh, whose program has won five Finals titles since the 2012 season. “That’s our goal all year, but we never take anything for granted. 

“The guys really stepped up. We knew Groves was going to come out strong. Our job was to not panic, not overreact and keep doing what we were doing. We knew we had a little bit of a lead (entering Saturday), so as long as we were mistake-free, we’d be OK.”

Groves did indeed come out strong. The Falcons quartet of senior David Helton, juniors Nolan Kamoo and Jackson Gugni and senior Hunter Reilly upended Dexter’s top-seeded 200 medley relay team to start the meet. Their time of 1:34.70 was the best of the weekend and gave their team an early six-point lead over the Dreadnaughts.

But it didn’t take long for Dexter to make its move. A runner-up finish by Dolen in the 200 freestyle helped cut Groves’ lead to three points – and it seemed to get the ball rolling for the Dreadnaughts.

Kinnard’s eighth-place finish in the next race, the 200 individual medley, gave his team an eight-point lead, one which it would not relinquish the rest of the day.

Dexter finished with 239 team points, besting Groves (203) and third-place Birmingham Seaholm (181.5). Midland Dow (162.5) and Grosse Pointe South (149) rounded out the top five.

Eberly was the star of the meet for Dexter. He won both the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly events. His 20.40 seconds in the 50 matched his preliminary time and beat runner-up Luke Lezotte of Midland Dow by a tenth of a second. 

His time of 47.79 in the 100 butterfly helped him repeat in the event. Walled Lake Northern’s Zane Rosely was a distant second, with a time of 49.94.

“It was definitely a goal of mine, since I started high school, to break 47,” Eberly said. “You don’t see a lot of high schoolers do it. It really sets you up well going into college like that. I knew I could do 47.5 if I really tried. I fell a little bit short, but I’m unbelievably happy with 47.7. I think it’s a phenomenal time.”

Eberly was one of the top swimmers entering the finals and knew he needed to swim up to those high expectations if his team was to have a chance to four-peat.

“I was super happy to be able to hold my places and help the team,” he said. “My situation is definitely different than other kids’. A lot of them have to step up, climb up, maybe they’re seeded eighth or 16th and they have no place to go but up. Going into states, I have nowhere to go but down. So it really adds a lot of pressure.”

Joining Eberly as a two-event winner was Fraser junior Alex Capizzo, who was victorious in both the 200 IM and 500 freestyle, a pair of events he also won a year ago. He beat out Rosely in the IM and Walled Lake Western junior Eric Hieber in the 500.  

Hieber easily won the 200 freestyle, beating out Dolen by more than 1½ seconds.

Dolen did pick up an individual title, narrowly edging Lezotte by two hundredths of a second in the 100 freestyle.

Other individual winners included Jack Hamilton of Berkley, whose time of 50.51 in the backstroke helped him beat out runner-up Ben Conroy of Gibraltar Carlson by nearly a second. And Byron Center senior Jacob Glover bested the field in the 100 breaststroke, finishing in a winning time of 56.38

Midland Dow’s Che Collin, Zach Fewkes, Hans Dehn and Lezotte swam a time of 1:25.13 to take first place in the 200 freestyle relay.

In the diving competition, Okemos junior Hunter Hollenbeck repeated as champion, scoring 462.95 points. Rochester Adams sophomore SooDong Kim and Wyandotte Roosevelt freshman Hudson Hill finished second and third, respectively, both eclipsing 400 points.

Groves, which finished third behind Dexter and Rochester Adams a year ago, is losing a few key seniors to graduation, but returns a good nucleus of athletes, which has head coach Ricky Forrest excited for what lies ahead for his team.

“(Dexter is) an experienced team, and I’ve got a lot of respect for what Mike does with his guys. Every single year, no matter where they’re at on the psych sheet, every team here knows that they’re going to bring it,” Forrest said. “We had an outstanding day during the prelims on Friday and a really good day (on Saturday). We’re going to be missing a lot of (senior) leadership and we’re going to need some boys to step up next year, but we’ve still got a really good core and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Rochester Adams finished sixth overall with 138 points, with Gibraltar Carlson (120), Detroit U-D Jesuit (102.5), Walled Lake Western (91) and Temperance-Bedford (86.5) rounding out the top 10.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Dexter senior Niklas Eberly swims the winning butterfly during Saturday’s Division 2 Finals at Eastern Michigan University. (Middle) Finishers in the 100 freestyle, including Dexter champion Casey Dolen, look to the scoreboard after their race. (Click for more from

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.)