Rice Wins Close Race to 4th Straight Title

March 11, 2017

By Dan Stickradt
Special for Second Half

ROCHESTER HILLS — High expectations. 

Attending a prestigious school such as Birmingham Brother Rice, where academics and athletics success stories are the norm and somewhat expected, Andrew Biskup understands the pressures that came with the tradition-rich territory. 

Biskup and his classmates exceeded those expectations during their prep careers at Brother Rice, and that all culminated Saturday at Oakland University. 

The Warriors pulled away from a tight field over the final couple of events to capture their fourth consecutive MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals championship in boys swimming & diving. 

“We had guys that swam at Rice 10 years ago. This shows how deep our tradition really goes and the expectations we have here,” said Biskup. “I knew we could be big, but we definitely exceeded my expectations of what I thought could be possible. We’ve always had a great program here at Rice, and it’s great to carry on our tradition.”

Top-ranked and senior-laden Rice collected 238 points to edge Ann Arbor Skyline (212), Saline (202), Novi (196) and Holland West Ottawa (190) in a field where just 48 points separated the top five teams.

Zeeland Unified (177), Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (113), Northville (105), Ann Arbor Pioneer (99) and Grandville (98) rounded out the top 10. A total of 35 schools scored points.

Brother Rice, which features 14 seniors and eight who scored points at the Finals, joined some elite company with the fourth straight title. The Warriors became only the ninth program in MHSAA lore to win at least four straight Finals championships.

“I don't think they understand the magnitude of what they have accomplished because they are so grounded,” offered veteran coach Mike Venos. “They are a humble group of kids that work so hard. Winning four straight titles, in any sport, is extremely difficult.” 

East Grand Rapids holds the record of 15 straight Class B-C-D crowns from 1948-1962. Bloomfield Hills Andover won eight straight (1990-97), EGR also completed seven straight (1976-82), Battle Creek Central seven consecutive (1931-37), Ann Arbor Pioneer six straight (1977-82), Ann Arbor University High five straight (1942-46), Brother Rice five straight (1994-98), Saline four straight (2010-13) and now Rice the past four Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship meets. 

Additionally, Marquette captured 12 straight crowns in the Upper Peninsula tournament (1991-2002). 

This marked Rice’s 11th MHSAA title overall dating back to 1994, and sixth with Venos as head coach. Venos also recorded a Finals runner-up as head coach at Rice and served as assistant for two title teams at Bloomfield Hills Andover.

Rice is now fourth on the all-time list with its 11 total MHSAA Finals championships in boys swim and dive. Only East Grand Rapids (25), Ann Arbor Pioneer (18) and Battle Creek Central (16) have more in the sport.

Brother Rice opened the day with a win in the 200-yard medley relay, as Mason Wilczewski, Biskup, Alex Margherio and Jack Grady joined forces for a 1:31.72 clocking.

Margherio, a junior, came back to win the 100 backstroke, in 48.46 seconds. Grady, Patrick Olmstead, Wilczewski and Margherio capped the meet with a victory in the 400 freestyle relay in 3:04.25.

“This is just a great feeling. This team is so close,” said Margherio. “We have a great senior class — 14 of them and eight that scored — and some good (underclassmen). This is what our goal was since last year.”

Rice held the lead entering the final event and just needed a top-eight finish to hold onto the lead.

“I knew we had the lead. I just wanted us to time our (exchanges right and not disqualify),” said Venos. “I knew if we placed high, we’d win the meet. They came back and actually won the relay.”

Novi’s Camden Murphy won the 200 individual medley (1:48.99) and 100 butterfly (46.63), the latter in a new MHSAA Division 1 and All-Division Finals record. Headed to the University of Georgia, Murphy won two events and placed on two top-eight relays (second in the 200 medley relay and fifth in the 400 freestyle relay).

“The butterfly has always been my favorite event, so to finally win it my senior year is incredible,” said Murphy. “(The Oakland County meet) put me in a really good place, and that kind of gave me some extra confidence that I carried over the rest of the season into today.” 

Holland West Ottawa’s Spencer Carl defended his crowns in the 200 freestyle (1:37.08) and 500 freestyle (4:26.89).

“Last year winning the 200 free wasn't expected. I won by .01 last year. This year I was expected to go out and defend it. I don't think I had my best race. It didn't go exactly how I wanted it to, but I still won,” Carl said. “I wanted to go out a state champion again, and that was my ultimate goal.”

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central sophomore Henry Schutte won the 50 freestyle (20.38) by less than three tenths of a second. Then he came back to win the 100 freestyle (45.27).

“I was runner-up in the 50 free last season, so I thought I’d have a chance this season,” noted Schutte. “I thought I had a great race. I wasn't sure how it would turn out being a sophomore. I just love the sport and love to (compete).”

Saline’s foursome of Matt Lau, Josh Willwerth, Greg Winning and Daniel Keith won the 200-yard freestyle relay in 1:25.01, with Keith pumping his first after he surged past Brother Rice down the stretch. He credited hard work coupled with divine influence for the Hornets’ relay win.

Lau also touched first in the 100 breaststroke (56.37).

“We knew we’d have a chance in that relay. It was wide open and we pulled it off,” said Keith. “It really boils down to us stepping up and it’s all to the glory of God. He’s the one who decides who wins these races. We’re thankful to him that we won a relay state championship like some of the other great Saline swimmers before us.”

Skyline sophomore Henry Schirmer captured the one-meter diving event with 470.15 points, ahead of Lake Orion freshman Alexander Brent (416.55 points).

The Eagles posted their highest D-1 Finals finish and did so with only one senior who scored points.

“I was new this year, and we asked the boys to change everything. At the beginning of the season we never anticipated this,” said first-year Skyline coach Maureen Isaac. “They came a long ways this season with such a young team. I don't think anyone would have thought we’d take second here with (mostly underclassmen). We had a senior place 15th in one event and swim on one of our relays. Everyone else will be back next year.” 

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PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch during Saturday's Division 1 Finals at Oakland University. (Middle) Birmingham Brother Rice stands on the champion’s podium with its latest trophy. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)