Pioneer Climbs Podium for 16th Time, 1st Since 2009

By Will Kennedy
Special for Second Half

March 27, 2021

HUDSONVILLE — Ann Arbor Pioneer dominated Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals and came away with its 16th championship, earning four individual titles in the process. 

Coach Stefanie Kerska said she was thrilled with the way her team performed throughout the entire competition, earning 369 points. That total was nearly 100 points more than the Pioneers’ closest competitor. 

“I am super pleased, I think we just wanted to be consistent from the start to the finish of the season,” Kerska said. “I thought they did such a great job doing that. Whether it was their preparation, execution, or just the way they’ve handled themselves, they’ve really been a dream.” 

But the day got off to a fast start for Saline, which finished second in the team standings. The Hornets took home the top spot in the 200-yard relay with a time of 1:30.35, more than a second faster than any other team and breaking a Hudsonville pool record. But Pioneer wasn’t far behind, finishing in second place, with a time of 1:31.74.

Another pool record fell in the second event of the day, the 200 freestyle. Pioneer senior Matthew Segal earned it with his time of 1:38.24 and added 20 points for his team. Northville senior Conner Halberg touched the wall less than a second after Segal, clocking in at 1:38.87. Rounding out the podium was Saline junior Matt Adanin at 1:41.41; he would later finish runner-up in backstroke as well. 

The Pioneers topped the podium again in the individual medley, with junior Ryan Hume touching the wall first in 1:50.37.

“I’ve been training for the whole year for this 200 IM,” Hume said. “I just had one mission, which was to win. I’m hoping to win again next year and hopefully break a varsity record.’

2021 LP Boys Swim & Dive Finals

During the sprint of the afternoon, the 50 free, West Ottawa claimed two of the top three spots on the way to finishing team runner-up. Junior Kevin Maas finished first with a blistering swim of 20.60 seconds to break the pool record. Senior teammate Josh Rottier finished in third (21.33), as Lake Orion senior Dane Herrick finished in the middle with a time of 21.13.

Even though his team finished just off the top of the podium, West Ottawa coach Steve Bowyer said he was beyond pleased with the way the Panthers ended the season.

“We knew coming in this year that Ann Arbor Pioneer was going to be really tough to beat,” Bowyer said. “We came in hoping for a runner-up finish and our guys got the job done today … we had some really nice performances today.”

Just like most other events on the day, Pioneer dominated the one-meter dive, as senior Cole Tremewan won by nearly 40 points, scoring 449.05. 

“I’m so happy for our diving program and for Cole winning; it was such a big moment for him,” Kerska said. “I know he felt a lot of pressure and handled it so beautifully.” 

The 100 butterfly proved to be a race where Saline could claw back some points, finishing two swimmers among the top 16 to Pioneer’s one. Huron Valley junior Fletcher Smith topped the podium with a time of 50.40.

In the 100 free, Pioneer placed three swimmers among the top 16, while Saline had two. But the Hornets got more points earning the individual title thanks to senior Ethan Saunders’ blazing 44.64.

The Pioneers padded their lead in the 500, placing two swimmers among the top three, Hume finished in second (4:31.93) and junior Cameron Williston finished in third (4:40.80). Northville’s Halberg finished just ahead of Hume with a time of 4:31.31. 

A new LP Division I Finals record was set in the 200-freestyle relay by West Ottawa’s team of Rottier, Tai Afrik, Alex Boersema and Maas, who finished in 1:23.25. Maas closed hard, finishing the final leg in just 19.94. Saline came in just milliseconds after the Panthers (1:23.68). The Pioneers weren’t far behind, clocking in third with a time of 1:25.32

2021 LP Boys Swim & Dive Finals

“It was really close, Saline’s freestyle was superfast, so I knew I had to bring it home for the team,” Maas said.” That was our goal, to get that state record, for the entire season. We talked about it like every day.”

Pioneer put two more finishers among the top 16 in the 100 backstroke, which was won by Rochester junior Jack VanHowe in 49.35. Pioneer then dominated in the 100 breaststroke, with Segal posting an all-division/class Finals record of 53.26.

Segal said he was thrilled with the accolade, but the team title means so much more.

“This team is amazing,” Segal said. “I’m really happy about all my other events, achieving state titles in individual events is really fun, but winning it as a team is a surging sense of pride. To accomplish something we know we’ve been working for, we’ve had it in our minds the whole season.” 

Pioneer continued to rack up the big points, finishing the 400 free relay in second place with a time of 3:03.84. Saline took the top spot again with a time of 3:03.84.

The title marks the Pioneers’ first since 2009. Though they don’t plan on waiting 12 years before winning it again, finally breaking the drought meant a lot to this team. 

“It means a lot. ... I was on those Pioneer former state championship teams, so I know what it means to the school and the community,” Kerska said. “I’m just so glad that we’re bringing back the tradition of Pioneer swimming and diving.”

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PHOTOS: (Top) An Ann Arbor Pioneer swimmer celebrates during Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Hudsonville High School. (Middle) A Holland West Ottawa competitor swims the breaststroke. (Below) Another racer swims the butterfly. (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.)