Preview: Champions Back for More

March 12, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

An accomplished group of athletes should bring plenty of flash to this weekend’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Swimming and Diving Finals.

Nine have their names attached to at least one MHSAA Finals record, while 17 have stood on the top step of the champions podium for winning at least one individual or relay event over the last three seasons.  

See below for team favorites and top individuals to watch at all three meets. Preliminaries are Friday, with championship races and diving Saturday. All three Finals also will be streamed live and can be watched with subscription on MHSAA.TV

Click for lineups and seed times for all three meets.

Division 1 at Eastern Michigan University

Team contenders: Reigning champion Birmingham Brother Rice is again the top-ranked team after winning last season’s championship by an incredible 143 points. The Warriors have 16 individuals seeded to score among the top 16 places, plus all three relays including the top-seeded in the 400-yard freestyle. Seniors Gust Kouvaris and Mark Blinstrub have been major contributors most of their high school careers, while sophomore Rudy Aguilar owns a top individual seed and swims relays as well. Holland West Ottawa, last season’s third-place finisher, has 10 individuals seeded to score plus all three relays – and eight of those 13 are seeded first or second in their events, with senior Tabahn Afrik and sophomore Spencer Carl expected to score big points. Ann Arbor Pioneer will try to move up from fourth last season and could make some waves with all three relays seeded fourth or higher.

Tabahn Afrik, Holland West Ottawa senior – Owns the LP Division 1 Final record in the 100 freestyle of 43.9 seconds and has the fastest seed time this winter of 44.15 – and could make a run at the all-Finals record of 43.73 swam by Battle Creek Lakeview’s Clay Youngquist in 2011. Afrik also is the reigning 200 freestyle champion but will instead swim the 50, in which he’s seeded second (20.51) and set the Finals record last season leading off his relay.

Rudy Aguilar, Birmingham Brother Rice sophomore – Returns after a solid eighth in the 500 and seventh in the 200 freestyle as a freshman. He’s seeded first in the 500 (4:36.63) and sixth in the 200 (1:43.26) this weekend.

Will Brenner, Ann Arbor Huron senior – One of the rare athletes who both swims and dives, he finished sixth in the 50 freestyle and third in diving last season and should contend in both. His 20.37 qualifying time in the 50 is only one tenth of a second off the LP Division 1 record.

Spencer Carl, Holland West Ottawa sophomore – Holds second seeds in both the butterfly (50.49) and 200 freestyle (1:41.31) after finishing 11th in the butterfly last season.

Devon Nowicki, Lake Orion senior – Finished sixth in the 500 freestyle and ninth in the 200 last season, but will swim the butterfly and breaststroke this weekend and has the top seed times in both – 49.93 and 54.31, respectively. His breaststroke time would set an all-Finals record by one second.

Jack Walsh, Detroit Catholic Central senior – Owns the top seeds in both the backstroke (49.52) and 200 individual medley (1:50.02) after winning the backstroke and finishing second in the IM in 2014.

Kai Williams, Ann Arbor Pioneer senior – Owns the top seed time in the 200 freestyle (1:39.05) and third-fastest in the butterfly (50.72). He finished fourth in the butterfly last season.

Jack Herremans, Rockford junior – Posted the top Regional score of 537.25 as the reigning Division 1 Finals champion. He scored 458.00 to claim last season’s title and could make a run at the LPD1 meet record of 494.40.

Birmingham Brother Rice 400 freestyle relay – This was one of the few events Saline didn’t win when it dominated the 2013 Final, and the Warriors are going for a third straight victory with both Kouvaris and Blinstrub swimming and second straight with junior Bobby Powrie as a contributor. Aguilar fills the fourth spot.

Division 2 at Holland Aquatic Center

Team contenders: Like Brother Rice in Division 1, Birmingham Seaholm won last year’s title by a significant margin (154.5 points) and is ranked No. 1 again. All three relays are seeded first, to go with 15 individual cuts seeded to score and the top-scoring diver at Regionals, junior Sebastian Fay. Ann Arbor Skyline is expected to move up from sixth last season on the strength of three relays and 16 individual seeds in scoring position, including two top seeds. Dexter was last season’s runner-up and also has all three relays seeded among the top eight in their races, plus a top-seeded individual.

Nate Kozycki, Grand Rapids Northview senior – Enters with the top seed time in the butterfly (51.34) and 11th-fastest in the backstroke (54.81) after finishing eighth in the individual medley and 10th in the butterfly in 2014.

Jacob Montague, Grosse Pointe South junior – Expected to turn a third in the IM and fifth in the breaststroke at last season’s Finals into championships this weekend. Montague has the fastest seeds in both the IM (1:53.06) and breaststroke (57.41).

Nehemiah Mork, Midland Dow junior – Posted the fastest seed times in the 50 freestyle (20.93) and 100 (46.34) after finishing fourth in the 50 and tying for second in the 100 last season.

Matt Orringer, Ann Arbor Skyline senior – Another two-event placer in 2014, he hopes to improve on his sixth in the IM and fifth in the 500. He’s seeded second in the IM (1:53.85) and first in the 500 (4:37.45).

Jack Russell, Birmingham Seaholm senior – Won the 200 individual medley last season and finished 10th in the 500 freestyle. He’s seeded sixth in the IM (1:57.61) and fifth in the breaststroke (58.81) and could be part of two more record-setting relays (see below).

Ryan Vander Meulen, Ann Arbor Skyline junior – Finished second in the 500 and fifth in the 200 freestyles last year, but enters with the top seed in the 200 (1:44.45) and will swim the 100 – where he’s seeded second (1:44.45) behind Mork.

John Vann, Battle Creek Lakeview senior – The two-time butterfly champion also took second in the 200 freestyle last season and is seeded second in both races this weekend. He’s just behind Kozycki in the butterfly (51.58) and Vander Meulen in the 200 (1:44.82).

Robbie Zofchak, Dexter junior – Finished second in the backstroke and individual medley last season after swimming the fastest IM preliminary time. He enters Friday seeded first in the backstroke (51.61) and third in the IM (1:54.13) behind Montague and Orringer.

Birmingham Seaholm 200 medley relay – Seniors Evan Burke, Russell and Nick Ross and junior Len Ciemniecki have the top seed time of 1:34.98 and could make a run on the record time of 1:33.41 set by Burke, Russell and two other teammates last season.

Birmingham Seaholm 200 freestyle relay – Seniors Enrique Hernandez and Russell and juniors Ciemniecki and Liam Little enter with a seed time of 1:25.30 – 64 hundredths of a second off the LPD2 meet record. Hernandez was part of last year’s champion in this race.

Division 3 at Oakland University

Team contenders: Top-ranked Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood won its first MHSAA team title last season after finishing runner-up in 2013, and enters with all three relays and 18 individual seeds in scoring position – including three top-seeded swimmers and one top relay. Chelsea, last season’s runner-up by only 26.67 points, has three relays and 15 individuals seeded to score, plus three contenders in diving. Chelsea is seeking its first MHSAA title, while East Grand Rapids has won 25 – most recently in 2013. The Pioneers were third last season, just 41.17 points off the lead, and should again have all three relays in contention, along with 11 individuals seeded to score.

Mitch Buccalo, Cranbrook Kingswood senior – Reigning champion in the individual medley is seeded first in that event (1:55.93). He also finished fifth in the backstroke last year, but instead will swim the butterfly and is seeded fourth (52.30).

Logan Carson, Bay City John Glenn senior – Enters seeded first in the 50 freestyle (21.59) and second in the 100 (47.81) after finishing fifth in the 50 and 12th in the 100 a year ago.

Skyler Cook-Weeks, Holland Christian freshman – Reigning 500 champ Parker Cook-Weeks graduated, but little brother Skyler has the top seed in the (4:46.14) and sixth seed in the 200 freestyle (1:47.79).

Giorgio DelGrosso, Cranbrook-Kingswood junior – Last season’s third-place finisher in the breaststroke and 10th-placer in the IM should earn even more points for the Cranes; he enters seeded first in the breaststroke (58.68) and fifth in the IM (2:00.76).

Brendan Gatward, Detroit Country Day junior – His seeds of seventh in the IM (2:03.67) and sixth in backstroke (54.22) might appear in the middle of a group of contenders. But Gatward is the reigning backstroke champion and took fourth in the IM in 2014.

Andrew Guan, Cranbrook-Kingswood junior – Should also be a big contributor again after finishing second in the butterfly and seventh in the 200 freestyle last season. Guan is seeded first in the 200 (1:42.48) and fifth in the butterfly (52.38).

Andy MacGregor, East Grand Rapids junior – More a distance swimmer at last season’s Finals, he finished fifth in the 500 and third in the 200 freestyles. He’s seeded second in the 200 (1:43.57) behind only Guan and owns the top seed in the 100 freestyle (47.47).

Alec Nyboer, Hamilton junior – Reigning butterfly champion is seeded first in that race (50.21), but also will try to move up from seventh last year in the backstroke; he’s seeded second (52.28) in that event.

Joey Puglessi, Grand Rapids Catholic Central junior – Won the backstroke in 2013 as a freshman but didn’t compete at last season’s Final; his seed time of 52.19 would beat the LPD3 Finals record set in 2009. Puglessi also is seeded sixth in the 200 IM (2:02.62).

Jacob Burris, Chelsea senior – Seeking repeat in diving after winning last season by 31.05 points with two-time champion Henry Swett of Marshall also in that field. Burris posted the top Division 3 Regional score this season of 513.40.

PHOTO: Swimmers launch during an event at last season’s LP Division 3 Finals. 

Local Dominance Achieved Again, Dow Sets Sights on Statewide Success

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

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 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.)