By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half
YPSILANTI – One by one, members of the Birmingham Seaholm boys swimming and diving team approached coach Tom Wyllie – who was completely soaked after a post-meet dip in the pool – and greeted him with a big hug.
When one swimmer offered a handshake, Wyllie insisted on a hug.
“It’s hugs; we’re all family,” Wyllie told the swimmer. “Soak it in.”
They were soaking in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 champions after a dominating performance Saturday at Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University.
Seaholm started the meet with an emphatic statement – an LP Division 2 Finals record performance in winning the 200 medley relay – and ended with a huge exclamation mark – another LP Division 2-record performance in winning the 400 freestyle relay. In between, Seaholm won the 200 freestyle relay, and junior Jack Russell captured the 200 IM for the Maples’ only individual championship of the meet.
The Maples finished with 357.5 points in a complete domination of the meet as Dexter was second with 203. They also won the MHSAA championship in 2011 and were second in 2012 and third in 2013.
Seaholm had 10 swimmers qualify for at least one individual event, and nine swimmers qualified in two. That all happened in an outstanding effort during preliminaries Friday.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my 16 years of coaching,” Wyllie said of Friday’s performance. “We were very deep across the board; we had swimmers qualify in every event, and we qualified four 100 freestylers in the top eight – and only had one individual state champion.
“That goes to that team concept – it takes a team to win.”
The 200 medley relay opened in impressive fashion as Evan Burke, Russell, Cliff Ross and Matt Perham won in 1 minute, 33.41 seconds, narrowly edging Grosse Pointe South’s effort of 1:34.23. The previous LP Division 2 Finals record was 1:34.81 set by Holland in 2013.
“That relay probably would not have been that fast if it had not been for Grosse Pointe South,” Wyllie said. “They were right there with us neck and neck and pushing us really hard. We walked away with the win and a record on top of that. It just set the tone for the rest of the day.”
The individual highlight of the day for Seaholm came in the third race – the 200 IM – when Russell won in 1:52.10 – more than a second better than his time in the preliminaries. Robbie Zofchak of Dexter was a close second in 1:52.28.
“I had no clue if I won,” Russell said. “When I touched, I just looked at the board and saw first. I thought he caught me on the end.
“My coach told me that I would have him on the breaststroke, but he’ll be gunning for me on the freestyle. When I looked over in the last 25, I saw he was catching me off the turn. I just put my head down, didn’t breathe and touched the wall and hoped for the best.”
Russell also was third in the 100 breaststroke and swam the second leg on the winning 200 medley relay team.
While Seaholm had only one individual champion, it had several standouts.
- Senior Nathan Anderson was on both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays that won, and he also tied for second in the 100 freestyle and was third in the 50 freestyle. “The most important part of that day was getting first with my relays,” Anderson said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without them. Because of them, I got what I wanted – I got my first place.”
- Junior Enrique Hernandez was on the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays in addition to taking fourth in the 100 freestyle and sixth in the 200 freestyle.
- Senior Mike Shaben also swam on the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays, and was fifth in the 50 freestyle and sixth in the 100 freestyle.
- Perham, a senior, was on the winning 200 medley relay and the 200 freestyle relay, and added a sixth-place finish in the 50 freestyle and an eighth-place finish in the 100 backstroke.
- Burke, Cliff Ross and Nick Ross each were on one winning relay team. Burke added a fourth-place finish in the 200 IM and was seventh in the 100 breaststroke. Nick Ross was seventh in the 200 freestyle and eighth in the 100 freestyle, while Cliff Ross was seventh in the 100 butterfly.
- Sophomore Sebastian Fay was runner-up in diving after placing 24th a year ago.
With the team championship secure, Seaholm went into the final event – the 400 freestyle relay – on a mission. Crosstown rival Birmingham Groves set the meet record of 3:05.63 in 2011, and in the preliminaries Friday, Seaholm was in the neighborhood with a 3:06.99.
They weren’t to be denied in the final, with Anderson, Shaben, Nick Ross and Hernandez teaming up to win in 3:05.13, shaving a half-second off the LP Division 2 record.
“The state record has always been one of our goals,” Shaben said. “The entire season we’ve been eying it. Two seniors, Nathan Anderson and me, we’ve really wanted to end our season with that record.”
While Seaholm dominated, there were other standouts as well led by Holland senior Thomas Rathbun. He successfully defended his championships in both the 200 freestyle and the 500 freestyle. His winning time of 4:28.75 in the latter was nearly 10 seconds ahead of the runner-up, and he won the 200 in 1:38.74.
Both times were better than his winning performances from 2013.
“I feel like that was the most important part,” Rathbun said of his times. “The placing doesn’t mean that much to me – it’s great to be first – but to me it’s more about the times and if I improve on myself.”
Rathbun also was rebounding from a difficult situation last summer.
“Coming into the season, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” he said. “I had an off-summer dealing with some mono and bronchitis, so it was a slow start.
“I worked through some stuff, and now it feels pretty good.”
The other successful defending champion was junior John Vann of Battle Creek Lakeview, who repeated in the 100 butterfly. His winning time of 49.23 was better than his 50.83 in 2013.
“It feels really good,” said Vann, who also was second in the 200 freestyle. “I was definitely more confident this year just knowing I had a state championship under my belt, and it just felt really good that I could compete with everybody and just get out there and race them.
“I took it out a lot faster than Friday, and it hurt a lot more in the end, but it was definitely worth it.”
White Lake Lakeland senior Will Walker, who finished second to Vann in the 100 butterfly, won the 50 freestyle in 20.83 seconds, while Nick Leshok of North Farmington won the 100 freestyle in 46.03 seconds.
The 100 backstroke went to Jason Wesseling of Jenison in 50.05 (just off the meet record of 50.04), and Xinghao Wang of Grand Ledge took the 100 breaststroke in 55.77 seconds.
The diving portion of the meet went to Swartz Creek senior Jason Maxwell, who outdistanced the field with 437.50 points as runner-up Fay of Seaholm had 375.20. Maxwell had a healthy lead for his final dive – a reverse double somersault in the tuck position.
However, the day and the meet belonged to Seaholm.
“Everybody played their part – the hugs – we’re one giant family,” Wyllie said. “When family cares about each other, you don’t want to let each other down. Everybody does their part.
“My son was on the last state championship with me. He was a senior and a captain, so that was a different feeling. I was wondering how this one would feel, and it feels like I have 45 sons; it’s just incredible. Both state titles are unique in their own way.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch for a leg of a relay Saturday at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final. (Middle) A swimmer surges ahead during his race at Eastern Michigan University. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)
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.
Get 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.
“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 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 email@example.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.)