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).

State Champs! Network: 2023 LP Boys Swim & Dive Finals Highlights

March 29, 2023

We take a look at all of the action from the 2023 MHSAA Boys Swimming State Finals

Congratulations to our State Champions
Division 1 - Ann Arbor Pioneer
Division 2 - Birmingham Groves
Division 3 - Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood