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. 

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.)