By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – Two past Upper Peninsula golf champions went head-to-head here Thursday, and as play stopped for a heavy downpour, the momentum made a tremendous switch after play resumed to help decide the issue.
Junior Paxton Johnson of Escanaba used the 30-minute rain delay to turn her fortunes around and claim her third straight Division 1 championship, which helped the Eskymos capture their third straight team title with a 381.
Meanwhile, the delay stopped Kaaren Liston's building momentum and basically ended the Houghton senior's charge. The Gremlins finished second at 390, a stroke ahead of Menominee.
Johnson, playing at her home Escanaba Country Club course, parred the front nine and finished with an 80. Liston, who won the Division 1 title as a freshman in 2015, shot 85 to tie Escanaba's Megan Dagenais for the runner-up score.
Home course advantage was an obvious benefit for Johnson, who lives adjacent to the fourth green and plays ECC much more often than frequently. Liston's advantage was her tremendous length of the tee, many times landing 40-50 yards beyond Johnson, who also has impressive distance.
"I didn't pay attention to how far ahead she was," said Johnson, who concentrated on playing her game and the course. "My game plan was to hit the green in regulation and make some putts. I was pretty comfortable out there."
"She basically knows where she can get into trouble and has a general idea what club to hit into each hole," said Liston, who said her extra length "kind of equals that out there somewhat."
Johnson, a southpaw who won the ECC women's championship last year, downplayed her home advantage. "Most holes here are pretty straight forward, but you have to know where to hit the ball on the greens. I don't think having knowledge of the course is that big of an advantage," she concluded.
The big advantage for Johnson came down to short-game execution. She was pretty steady all day while Liston had numerous errors on approach shots or with the putter. "I got myself in a little trouble not hitting the greens," she agreed.
"I played well, better than I shot," said Liston, playing in just the fourth meet of the weather-restricted season. "My approach shots were lacking, and I had a few blowup holes. Shots 100 yards and in definitely need work."
The turning point came after the rain delay basically swamped several holes on the back nine, where Johnson, Liston and Dagenais ended their rounds. Liston came out of the delay with a double-bogey 6 on No. 12 and a three-putt triple-bogey 6 on No. 13, putting the skids on her final high school round.
"The rain delay helped Pax out," said EHS assistant coach Jake Berlinski, referring to Johnson’s double-bogey 6 on No. 10 and a bogey-4 on No. 11 that happened as dark clouds were approaching. "She was able to regroup in the clubhouse and came out ready to fire."
With the weather arriving, Berlinski encouraged Johnson to hit her approach shot to No. 12 green after her tee shot – just before the weather horn – landed shy of the creek 155 yards from the green. "That kind of got her round started again, and with Kaaren going the other way it kind of sealed the deal," he said.
"I didn't let myself get freaked out," Johnson said of her brief slump. "I played a good, solid front nine. I was a little bit frustrated, but the key was it was just one (bad) hole and there are eight more to go so I just kept playing."
Johnson's only misstep after that came on No. 15, which had several large puddles – actually more like small ponds. She had a double-bogey 6 on No. 15.
Johnson only had two legitimate birdie attempts but missed on Nos. 1 and 7, after Liston birdied No. 1. "I couldn't quite capitalize. I mis-read them a little bit," Johnson said.
"The first 3-4 holes I kept playing solid and settled in and found my groove," she added.
Playing with Liston was beneficial, she agreed. "It definitely helped playing with her. She is such a good golfer and she pushes me. She is an amazing golfer and hits the ball a mile. I love watching her because she has such a beautiful swing,” Johnson said.
"If I play my best game and she plays her best game, there is nothing I can do. I can't play defense."
Liston said her goal was to shoot in the 70s, which began after shooting 75 in a family outing Monday at Houghton’s Portage Lake Golf Course.
Dagenais, a solid No. 2 behind Johnson during the abbreviated season, was happy and sad about her final prep round. She three-putted No. 18 for a double-bogey 7 and "I missed the last putt by this much (inches on her fingers). I wanted to take second alone," she said.
"I hit a lot of greens in regulation. I wanted my team to have a better chance of winning," she added. "My irons were awesome. I was sticking the pins."
Berlinski was happy to see the girls triumph. "To walk out with that trophy right now is pretty incredible," he told three of the girls who will be returning in spring. "Having Paxton helps when you have the medalist. The other four girls played probably as good as they have all year, and at the right time."
PHOTOS: (Top) A 20-minute downpour left large ponds of water scattered around the back nine at Escanaba Country Club during Thursday's Upper Peninsula Division 1 girls golf tournament. Tourney medalist Paxton Johnson's reflection is shown as she pushes her cart on the 14th fairway. (Middle) Johnson holds up her individual and team championship medals. (Below) Kaaren Liston of Houghton watches as her chip shot tumbles toward the hole Thursday. She tied for second. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
Detroit Cass Tech boys basketball coach Steve Hall, Farmington Hills Mercy girls golf coach Vicky Kowalski and East Grand Rapids girls swimming & diving coach Butch Briggs and have been named a 2022-23 National Coach of the Year in their respective sports by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
They were selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The following brief bios include an excerpts from each honoree’s coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.
Steve Hall guided Detroit Cass Tech to its first MHSAA Finals championship last season as the Technicians capped a 28-1 run. He’s 160-30 in his eighth season directing Cass Tech, with his team 9-0 this winter, and he has a career high school record of 370-103 having also coached at Detroit Rogers (1996-97 through 2004-05) and Detroit Northwestern (2005-06 through 2007-08). He led Rogers to three straight Class D championships from 2003-05, led Northwestern to its first Detroit Public School League championship in 30 years and Cass Tech to its first in the PSL in 19 seasons. He also coached collegiately as an assistant at Duquesne University (2008-09 through 2011-12) and Youngstown State University (2011-12 through 2014-15) before taking over at Cass Tech for the 2015-16 season. He has received multiple state Coach of the Year awards during his tenures at Rogers and Cass Tech, and also serves the latter as athletic director and boys cross country coach.
“My coaching philosophy is ‘Learning Life Skills Through Basketball.’ I have encountered many youngsters that value basketball more than anything. Therefore, I use basketball as a carrot to dangle to help them acquire life skills and other necessities that can benefit them in their lives. Ultimately, when the ball stops bouncing they may be quality fathers, husbands, principals, CEOs, etc., and positive contributors to society. My motto is, “Be better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today.” My athletic philosophy is scholarships and championships in that order! We love to win. But winning is not only on the scoreboard but also in life. Accountability, Reliability, Dependability and Responsibility. “Do what you are supposed to do, be where you are supposed to be, every play and every day.” God has blessed me with high morals, values and unmatched energy to leave my student athletes better than I found them.”
Vicky Kowalski completed her 46th season this fall coaching Farmington Hills Mercy’s girls golf team, and led the program to its second-straight Lower Peninsula Division 2 championship and fourth MHSAA Finals title overall. Her teams also have won seven Regional and 21 league championships and were 220-50 in matches entering the season. She has received several coaching awards over the years including statewide awards from the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association (MIGCA) and Michigan High School Coaches Association (MHSCA). Kowalski also is in her 22nd season as Mercy’s girls bowling coach and has coached multiple subvarsity seasons of basketball and volleyball as well. She’s been inducted into Halls of Fame by both MIGCA and the Michigan High School Interscholastic Bowling Coaches Association (MHSIBCA).
“I have always believed in participation. On all the teams I have coached, everyone plays – no one sits the bench. All my athletes have their opportunities to grow in the sport. I have always preached dedication and sportsmanship. The athletes practice well to perform well. They encourage teammates as well as competitors. I enjoy interaction with other coaches. We share coaching techniques and ideas for improving team performance.”
Milton “Butch” Briggs has led the East Grand Rapids girls swimming & diving team to a record 26 MHSAA Finals team championships, the first in 1978 and including six straight from 1981-86 and the program’s current three-year title streak. His girls program also has celebrated 105 individual or relay Finals champions and clinched 33 league team titles. Briggs has received several coaching awards, including nationally for his sport (girls and boys combined) from the National High School Athletic Coaches Association (NHSACA) in 2000 and the NFHS Coaches Association for boys swimming & diving in 2011. He entered this past fall season with a dual meet record of 522-65-1 over his career, which has spanned 49 years total, and his boys teams have won 12 MHSAA Finals. Briggs also has served as an assistant track coach at multiple schools and as MISCA president, and is in the MHSCA Hall of Fame.
“My coaching philosophy has been, and continues to be, a work in progress. I have formed relationships with hundreds of amazing young people. They have taught me life lessons in real time and real situations. As a neophyte coach, the experience revolved around winning. We worked together as a team, supported each other in and out of the pool, and won often. Thankfully, I became aware of the value within each athlete. Today, I attempt to interact with each athlete at every team activity and follow their progress in non-swimming endeavors. In short, when I removed my ego from the team's expectations and outcomes, the entire atmosphere was much more enjoyable and productive. And we are still capable of being successful. The Lord has put me in the right place at the right time.”
Six more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Stefanie Kerska was honored in boys swimming & diving after leading Ann Arbor Pioneer to its third-straight Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals title under her leadership, and Asa Kelly was recognized in boys track & field after leading Benzie Central to the LPD3 Finals championship. Mt. Morris volleyball coach James Pender was honored after leading his team to the Division 2 Quarterfinals in 2022, when he also eclipsed 1,000 career coaching wins in the sport, and Traverse City St. Francis’ Julie Duffing was awarded in cross country after leading her program to the 2022 LPD3 Finals championship, the program’s second under her leadership. Haslett/Williamston girls lacrosse coach Chad Pastor was honored after leading his team to the Division 2 Semifinals last spring, and Hartland competitive cheer coach Candace Fahr was recognized after leading her team to the MHSAA Finals for the fourth time in her six seasons guiding the program.
The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.