Groves Accomplishes Year-long Goal in Earning 1st Finals Title Since 2010

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 11, 2023

HOLLAND – Birmingham Groves junior Angus McDonald remembers a phone call between teammates following last year’s fourth-place finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals.  

“I remember a year ago, we were on a call late at night saying that we could really win state next year, and we’ve been working for this the whole year,” McDonald said. “It’s something we’ve dreamed of for so long.” 

That dream became a reality Saturday as the Falcons claimed the Division 2 crown by a narrow margin over Detroit U-D Jesuit.

Groves finished with 274 points, while Jesuit had 267 points. Birmingham Seaholm (210) was third and Grosse Pointe South (207) placed fourth. 

The Finals win was the Falcons’ first since 2010. 

“We thought we had a chance to win the BIg Dance,” Groves coach Ricky Forrest said. “We knew it was going to be very tight. We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and it was. 

“We had a lot of kids step up, and our captains and our leadership on the team did a tremendous job.” 

Groves has steadily climbed the ladder at the Finals. The Falcons had placed ninth two years ago, and knew this feat was possible with the return of several experienced swimmers. 

Fenton’s Max Haney races to the 200 IM victory. “It was a goal that they had last March, and they put in the work,” Forrest said. “It's one of the most rewarding feelings in the world when you put in the work, and you get to see it. I'm getting goosebumps just talking about it right now.” 

McDonald won the 100-yard breaststroke (55.90) and was a part of the victorious 200 medley relay team that set the tone early. 

“We knew if any year was going to be the year, this was it, and we’ve been striving so hard to make it happen,” McDonald said. “U of D put up a great fight, and they’re a very strong team. We’re just so happy to come out with this, and this feels amazing.” 

Senior Ian Duncan, who clocked a winning time of 1:40.01 in the 200 free, became emotional as he clutched the championship trophy and talked about the journey to reach this moment. 

“In this sport more than anything, you have early mornings and late nights and you think about all the things that can get you through those hard practices when you really don't want to do it,” Duncan said. “Keeping your dreams alive, that one day you might get in the pool and win it all for your team and the school that you represented for four years. It's really something that keeps you going through the hard times. It's immeasurable.”

After Friday’s preliminaries, Groves set out to prove it had enough mettle to win it all. 

“We brought it together in our hotel room, and we thought we had a chance to do something special,” Duncan said. “We all looked each other in the eye, and we all knew if we could come together as a team and trusted each other then we were going to come out on top.” 

Grosse Pointe South’s Logan Hepner launches during his repeat pursuit in diving.Forrest said the little things made the difference. 

“Our boys swam outstanding yesterday and today, and it's really crazy how all the small things that we teach and we coach always matter when the races are so tight,” he said. 

Jesuit placed runner-up for the second-straight year. Last year the Cubs finished second to Ann Arbor Skyline. 

“We kind of knew all season that we were talented,” Jesuit coach Drew Edson said. “I didn’t realize we were going to be up like this, but our focus the entire season and this weekend was the team. 

“This is the best team around when it comes to being loving and appreciative for the successes they've had because they’ve worked for every amount of it.” 

Jesuit captured wins in a pair of relay events, the 200 and 400 free. 

“Top to bottom our kids did phenomenally,” Edson said. “Our relays were great, individually we were great and we had a lot of top-end speed. We were just missing a little bit of depth, and I think that’s where championships are won. Our kids swam their hearts out.”  

Fenton senior Max Haney became a two-time Finals champion winning the 200 IM (1:48.44) and the 100 back (48.92). 

Grosse Pointe South senior Logan Hepner recorded the top honor in diving for the second-straight season, this time by scoring 560.801 points. His father Chad had won a Finals championship in diving for the Blue Devils in 1993.

Byron Center's Austin Briggs (50 freestyle), Grosse Pointe south's Keiran Rahmaan (100 butterfly) and Troy Liu (100 free), and Walled Lake Northern's Seah Diffenderfer (500 free) also won championships, Diffenderfer repeating in that race.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Birmingham Groves celebrates its LPD2 team championship Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center. (Middle) Fenton’s Max Haney races to the 200 IM victory. (Below) Grosse Pointe South’s Logan Hepner launches during his repeat pursuit in diving. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)