Losses Can't Stop Pioneer from Winning 3rd-Straight Finals Championship

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

March 11, 2023

GRAND RAPIDS – Gabriel Sanchez-Burks didn't see the sense in wallowing over the past.

Instead, the Ann Arbor Pioneer senior swimmer considered it smarter to focus this season on what his team could still accomplish despite huge graduation losses from the program's last two Lower Peninsula Division 1 swimming & diving champions.

That's how Sanchez-Burks explains the Pioneers winning their third-straight Finals title Saturday at Calvin University.

"We lost a lot of good kids, but we stepped up," said Sanchez-Burks, named the Swimmer of the Meet by the Michigan Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association after winning two events while helping two relays to titles. "We encouraged the young guys to step up, and they did. It was definitely my most memorable moment; we had so many great successes."

Rockford’s Julian Cardenas completes one of his dives on the way to winning his event. Pioneer topped off its season by scoring 288 points to outdistance runner-up Holland West Ottawa's 177 points. Brighton was third at 156, Novi was fourth with 155 and Zeeland fifth at 147.

This championship came after Pioneer, which had only 10 swimmers on the roster, returned only three key contributors from last year's title-winning team. The team had 18 swimmers on the 2022 champion and 14 on the 2021 title winner. The four seniors on this year's team – Sanchez-Burks, Alec Lipham, Justin Su and Young Yun – never lost a dual, conference or Finals meet over the last three years.

"Every team is different; it's like your children. They have their own makeup, their own personality, their own way of doing things. It's just so rewarding," Pioneer coach Stef Kerska said. "When you're working with 14 or 15-year-old boys, you just try to get them to focus. It takes a special group."

Sanchez-Burks won the 50-yard freestyle (20.19) and the 100 free (45.25) while also helping the 200 free relay (1:33.73) and 200 medley relay (1:25.92) to first places. Pioneer won the meet's first race, the 200 free relay, and never trailed in the meet. Pioneer also won the 400 relay (3:07.96).

"They realize how special our environment and culture is," Kerska said of three-peating. "We remind them to enjoy every day, every practice, every conference meet, every state meet. I feel like they've learned that."

Rockford's Julian Cardenas was named diver of the meet after winning that event with a 474.35. After finishing  second last year as a sophomore, he wound up unbeaten this season. He said the difference between finishing runner-up and winning a state title is miniscule.

"It's a fine-tuning. You (can lose) on the smallest of mistakes. It can be your mechanics, your style, where your hands are. I just try to stay relaxed," he said. “It’s all about repetition and doing things over and over again."

Zeeland’s Owen Stephens swims to a championship Saturday in the 200 individual medley. Zeeland's Owen Stevens was a double winner, taking the 200 individual medley (1:50.76) and 500 free (4:30.81). The sophomore, who was sixth in the 200 individual medley and fourth in the 500 a year ago, said considering the workload he's put in the last two years, he had hopes of winning a pair of events.

"Your goal is always to win," he said. "When the (seeds) sheet came out, I was seeded well. I've improved every day, put in the work. I worked on all four strokes, and it paid off. You just have to swim your own race and not focus on anyone else."

The other champions included Ryan Gurgel of Canton, who captured the 200 free (1:39.66) and 100 butterfly (49.00). He qualified for the Finals as a freshman and sophomore and was second in the 200 free a year ago.

"It was a goal of mine after coming up short last year," he said of winning a pair of titles. "Expectations can put a lot of pressure on yourself, but you have to live up to them. I think I swam well. I was proud of myself."

Olin Charnstrom of Oxford won the 100 backstroke (49.04), and Brighton's Luke Newcomb won the 100 breaststroke (55.34).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Ann Arbor Pioneer's Christopher Leuciuc and Detroit Catholic Central's Roshi Turner race in the 200 IM. (Middle) Rockford’s Julian Cardenas completes one of his dives on the way to winning his event. (Below) Zeeland’s Owen Stephens swims to a championship Saturday in the 200 individual medley. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene).

Picking Up Seconds All Over, Cranbrook Picks Up Points to Climb Podium

By Jason Schmitt
Special for MHSAA.com

March 11, 2023

ROCHESTER — Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood edged top-seeded East Grand Rapids by one hundredth of a second Saturday in the 200-yard medley relay at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals at Oakland University.

The Cranes celebrated their victory in the meet’s first event like they had just won the state championship. Little did everyone in attendance know that when all was said and done, that razor-thin margin would in fact be the difference, as Cranbrook captured its first Finals title since 2017. The Cranes totaled 271 team points, beating out the two-time reigning champion Pioneers (259) by 12 points. 

“I’m one of those coaches, I score out the psych sheet, I score out the entries and EGR was 11 points up on us coming into today,” Cranbrook head coach Paul Ellis said. “(Winning) that first relay, that was a 12-point swing. That got the snowball rolling, and we continued to feed off that and go fast.”

Freshman A.J. Farner, senior Ethan Schwab and sophomores Sean Lu and Joe Wiater got the win for Ellis’s team. Schwab and Wiater swam the top splits in their legs, with Wiater rallying his team to victory in the final freestyle leg.

“That win by one one-hundredth really set the tone for the meet,” Schwab said. “It was great to come out with my team and have fun in the first relay and then bring the energy into the next event.”

Adrian’s London Rising celebrates his victory in the 200 freestyle. Schwab brought the energy to all four of his swims at the Finals. The Michigan-bound Schwab won three of the races he entered and set LP Division 3 Finals records in both the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke this weekend. His time of 1:48.23 in Saturday’s IM beat the record he set just a day earlier in the prelims. He then finished with a 54.31 in the 100 breaststroke, beating out Wayland’s Zachery Jenison by more than two seconds but falling just short of his record-setting time of 54.04, set in Friday’s preliminary round.

Schwab was named Swimmer of the Meet by the Michigan Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association for his efforts, which also included a runner-up finish as part of the 400 freestyle relay.

Cranbrook’s 200 freestyle relay team of sophomore Robbie Sarle, senior Christos Tzoumakas, Wiater and junior Will Farner beat out top-seeded and 2022 event champion Grand Rapids Christian for the win. It was one of four victories for the Cranes.

“It was just a phenomenal team effort from top to bottom,” Ellis said. “Everyone did their part. Everyone nickel and dimed their way into the top 16 and nickel and dimed their way by moving up a little bit in each final swim that we had.

“We had huge swims from Will Farner, A.J. Farner and Sean Lu. Joe Wiater was injured last year. He came back and was consolation in the 50 and top eight in the breaststroke. It was a whole bunch of guys from all different classes that did it for us. I’m thrilled with everything they did.”

East Grand Rapids, which came in having won the Division 3 title in both 2021 and 2022, actually took slim leads over Cranbrook after eight events and again after 10. Junior Carter Kegle won the 500 freestyle for the second-straight year, beating out Plainwell freshman Sam Harper by five seconds. The win helped his team take a 10-point lead over Cranbrook. Kegle would finish second in the 200 freestyle and helped his Pioneers win the 400 freestyle relay to end the day. Junior Micah Spitzley and seniors Ted Turnage and Logan McCahill joined Kegle on the winning relay.

“We swam great. We broke three or four school records, and we were in the hunt,” East Grand Rapids head coach Milton Briggs said. “Give credit to Cranbrook. They beat us in that (medley) relay and they won the 200 free relay, which they weren’t supposed to. They had a great second day. They swam out of their minds. They’re a very, very good team.”

Chelsea’s Mitch Brown completes a dive on the way to claiming the title in that event. Grand Rapids Christian junior Ben Sytsma won the 50 freestyle and finished runner-up in the 100 freestyle. He won the 50 in a time of 20.57 seconds, edging Manistee junior Alec Lampen by three tenths of a second. 

Lampen rebounded to win the 100 backstroke in a time of 50.30 seconds. 

Chelsea’s Mitch Brown rolled to victory in the 1-meter diving competition. The junior scored 522.25, outdistancing second-place Gryffin Porter of Haslett (428.75). DeWitt freshman Carson Reynolds was third with 419.65 points.

Fremont senior Matheus Garcia won the 100 freestyle, touching the wall in a time of 44.75 seconds. He beat out Sytsma (44.96) and McCahill (45.20).

The state saw a glimpse of the future, as a pair of freshmen walked away with championships. Otsego’s Liam Smith won the 100 butterfly, and Adrian’s London Rising was tops in the 200 freestyle. Smith entered the weekend with the top-seeded time but was second after Friday’s preliminaries to Holland senior James Baer.

“I always put pressure on myself,” said Smith, who won the final with a time of 49.74. “I came in as the 1-seed so I felt like I had to finish as the 1-seed. But at the same time, I have three more years to come in and do it all over again. It feels awesome.”

Rising, who was second to Kegle after the prelims, said he was stressing out heading into the prelims and all night Friday. 

“All night, I was just visualizing my race,” said Rising, who also finished third in the 100 butterfly. “When I came back, I was more nervous than excited but after I won, it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders. Today, I just focused on myself and didn’t underestimate anybody. I thought it was going to be a good race, and it was.”

Holland Christian finished third with 161 points, and Adrian (135) and Grand Rapids Christian (110) rounded out the top five.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS Cranbrook Kingswood’s Ethan Schwab launches into one of his races Saturday at Oakland University. (Middle) Adrian’s London Rising celebrates his victory in the 200 freestyle. (Below) Chelsea’s Mitch Brown completes a dive on the way to claiming the title in that event. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)