Pioneer Meets Lofty Expectations with Another Trophy Finish

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

March 12, 2022

HOLLAND – Nothing gets the attention of Ann Arbor Pioneer’s swimmers quicker than a glance up at the state championship banners in their home facility.

The piercing whistle of Pioneers coach Stefanie Kerska might be a close second, however.

Pioneer’s boys swimming & diving team made some more noise this weekend at Holland Aquatic Center, capped by another championship in runaway fashion at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals on Saturday.

On the strength of their depth and relays, the Pioneers amassed 365 points. Northville was runner-up with 267 points, followed by Holland West Ottawa in third (195), Saline fourth (187.50) and Macomb Dakota fifth (157).

It was the second-straight boys Finals title for Pioneer and Kerska. The Pioneers’ girls team, also coached by Kerska, captured a second consecutive championship in November at the Holland facility.

“They walk in every day to a facility that has multiple, multiple, dozens of banners on the wall and they know. We have alumni come back to speak about the program and what it means. There is a lot of pressure – people don’t realize that,” Kerska said about her boys team.

“There is a daily pressure on these guys to not only be the best here, but to live up to what’s come before them. I know I feel it, walking into my office every day. I’ve got a picture of Liz and Denny Hill on my desk, and I just try to be what they were.”

Under the Hills, Pioneer captured 15 Division 1 or Class A Finals titles in boys swimming and 16 more on the girls’ side. Kerska and the Pioneers certainly have kept that championship tradition afloat with four more titles between the boys and girls teams the last two years.

Kerska also learned from Denny Hill, her mentor, how handy the shrieking whistle across a noisy natatorium can be. When she does it, the Pioneers tend to stop in their tracks on the pool deck. They can hear her in the pool, too, and take their cues.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time. Actually, Denny Hill tried to teach me how to do it without my fingers, which is probably the better way, especially with COVID, to do it,” Kerska said with a smile. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years. Although, I think I do have the same shrillness and tone that he did, so I’m trying to follow in his footsteps.

“We kind of do, like, the Von Trapps: Wherever they are on the pool deck, when they hear my whistle, they look. It comes in very handy with 17 boys.”

Kerska’s boys answered the call. Seniors Ryan Hume and Jack Wilkening led the way for Pioneer.

Hume repeated in the 200-yard individual medley (1:49.44) and he also won the 500 freestyle (4:26.65) after finishing runner-up in the latter event last year. Wilkening captured first place in the 100 free (45.06) and swam a leg on the victorious 200 medley relay (1:31.91) along with seniors Robert Yang and Alex Farmer plus junior Gabriel Sanchez-Burks.

Hume and Wilkening also joined Yang and senior Harrison Sanders on the Pioneers’ winning 400 free relay (3:03.99), which closed the Finals meet with an exclamation point. 

Pioneer senior Teodor Jaworski captured the title in the 200 free (1:39.45), and he took second in the 500 free behind teammate Hume. Wilkening also placed second in the 100 backstroke.

Ann Arbor Pioneer swimming“It’s all about the team. I had to have (a strong) relay for the team and I was performing for the team at that point,” said Wilkening, who signed to swim at University of Michigan.

As a member of back-to-back state title teams, Wilkening said this one was a little more special, mostly because things were a lot closer to “normal” in comparison to 2021.

Last season was shortened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last year was a crazy year for swimming in particular, men’s swimming, just because of how shortened our season was, how different everything was – the training, too,” Wilkening said. 

“We really got to become a team again, I think. That’s what really set this one apart. We actually got to bond as one, be as one in total, more than last year.”

As Wilkening put it, being surrounded by the “greatness” of high-achieving coaches and peers has driven him and his teammates to achieve at this high level.

Sanchez-Burks can vouch for that. He is not a year-round swimmer like many others in the Pioneer program, as he also focuses his attention to water polo – but he played a key role for his team.

Sanchez-Burks was especially pleased by his runner-up finish in the 50 free, which established a school record with a time of 20.60.

“It’s been a struggle for me to keep up with everybody,” Sanchez-Burks said. “In practice, I always try to push myself to stay with all the year-round swimmers and I always try to push myself to stay with all the people I’m competing against today. It’s a lot of fun.

“All the relays, I think that’s where we strive because we have such a diverse team – we spread out so many good swimmers.”

Other first-place finishes belonged to West Ottawa senior Kevin Maas in the 50 free (20.58), Saline senior Joshua Brunty in the 100 breaststroke (55.85), Rochester senior Jack VanHowe in the 100 backstroke (48.13), Canton junior Ryan Gurgel in the 100 butterfly (49.34), Waterford Mott junior Alex Poulin in 1-meter diving (456.70), and Northville’s 200 free relay team (1:23.88) of Evan Scotto-DiVetta, Kyle McCullough, Nate Obrigkeit and Leonardo Simoncini.

Maas, who also is taking his swimming talents to U-M, was a back-to-back winner in the 50 free. Last year, he swam on the winning 200 free relay and tied for second in the 100 free.

On Saturday, VanHowe repeated in the backstroke.

“It was super emotional and super electric in so many ways,” Maas said about his performance Saturday in a venue that’s very familiar to him. “I never knew I could be so happy and so energetic after dropping only 0.02 (in the 50 free), but just to get the ‘W’ for the team and repeat for my team and my family, it meant a lot to me and I was emotional.

“That was the happiest I’ve ever been, and it felt so good.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Robert Yang swims the third leg of the winning 200 medley relay for Ann Arbor Pioneer. (Middle) Pioneer’s Teodor Jaworski pulls to the front on the way to winning the 200 freestyle. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

Local Dominance Achieved Again, Dow Sets Sights on Statewide Success

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

January 25, 2023

Less than 24 hours after its 2021-22 season ended, the Midland Dow boys swimming & diving team had established its goal for the next year.

Bay & ThumbGet back to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals, and put Dow back among the best swim teams in the state.

“Even at the state meet last year, we were like, ‘Where are we going to be at when we come back here?’” Dow coach Claire Fries said. “It was the day after the state meet last year, we were already in that mode for next year. The boys have worked hard to meet that goal.”

While the Finals are still more than a month away – March 10 and 11 at the Holland Aquatic Center – Dow has already punched several tickets back to the championship meet.

All three Dow relays have met the Finals-qualifying mark, and at least one Dow swimmer has hit the mark in all but one individual event. In some events, multiple Chargers have qualified.

That’s a far cry from a year ago, when nearly all of Dow’s qualifying times were met in the final meets of the season.

“We’ve had our mindset on it all year,” said Dow senior Thomas Bacigalupo. “We’ve been working on it, practicing in the morning three times a week. On a big piece of paper in our office here, it says, ‘We’re going back,’ and we’re going to succeed. We have a saying that when we can see our goals, we have a higher chance of achieving them.”

Bacigalupo is one of six returning Finals qualifiers for Dow, joining his twin brother Tyler, senior Harrison Schuster, juniors Noah Buist and Nathan Velez, and sophomore Eli Soderberg.  

That core made it easy to see why the Chargers were excited well before a single qualifying time had been accomplished.

Thomas Bacigalupo, second from left on starting block, prepares to lead off the B heat of the 400 freestyle relay. “From last year’s team, we had almost everybody come back, and our team is full of depth this year with the freshman class we brought in,” Soderberg said. “We still have all that talent and all that speed. Those expectations, last year, were for all of us just to get to the state meet and qualify top 16 and all of that. Now, this year, we can actually make a run for stuff.”

Qualifying as many swimmers for the Finals as early as they have is a good sign for the Chargers. So is winning their 20th-straight Tri-Cities championship, which they accomplished this past weekend at Saginaw Valley State.

It’s a streak that predates the birth of any current Dow swimmer, and very nearly their coach.

“I think our goal is to keep that streak going as long as we can,” Tyler Bacigalupo said. “It shows the work ethic of all the guys in the past. But we also try to think of it like every regular meet, and just go out there and do our thing.”

For Fries, who is in her fourth year with the program and third as head coach, the Tri-Cities meet is about more than just continuing the streak. 

“It’s more about a celebration of our community here,” she said. “What I stress to the boys is that this is really about representing Dow and the Tri-City community, and being able to compete and race with these kids that you’re with all year round. That’s more of what I put the focus on.”

With their local dominance established again, the Chargers continue to look to establish themselves on a bigger stage, and from what Fries has seen from her swimmers this season, it’s something she thinks they’re capable of accomplishing.

“We have nine seniors on our team, and they definitely are motivated,” she said. “They wanted to show that Dow is a good swim program, and one that should be respected anywhere in the state. Our boys are really motivated to compete with anybody in the state. That drive for competition has really fueled our team and made our team really close.”

Dow has twice been Finals runner-up, in 2006 and 2008 both in LP Division 2. The Chargers felt they had a chance to win it all in 2020, but that meet never happened as it was canceled because of the pandemic. 

Rather than say “what if?” regarding their freshman year, the seniors are looking forward.

“We want to be top five and really put Midland Dow back on the map,” Tyler Bacigalupo said. “That (2020) was our best chance of being on top in states, but we want to put Dow back on the map again. Our tennis team and our hockey team have done it, now we just want to bring some attention to us.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at paulcostanzo3@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Midland Dow’s Noah Buist launches into a race during last season’s LPD2 Finals. (Middle) Thomas Bacigalupo, second from left on starting block, prepares to lead off the B heat of the 400 freestyle relay. (Photos by High School Sports Scene.)