KENTWOOD – Elise Fennell wished that there were the traditional two days of play at last year’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.
The East Kentwood sophomore golfer shot a 74 to tie for fourth in the event that was reduced to only one day of competition due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It was a little disappointing because I always play better the second round,” Fennell said. “I really wish there was another day.”
Fennel finished four strokes behind individual champion Katie Brody of Grand Blanc. However, her performance capped off a stellar freshman season and shared a glimpse of her potential.
Fennell was the top golfer in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red, sporting a nine-hole average of 35 while winning the midseason and postseason tournaments. She also received all-region and all-state honors.
So what will she do for an encore?
East Kentwood head coach Mike Ketelaar thinks the sky’s the limit for his No. 1 player.
“It will be tough to top what she did last year because she’s already built those accolades, and she had some really great rounds,” Ketelaar said. “I’m excited to see all aspects of her game click together.”
Fennell didn’t come out of nowhere.
She picked up her first club when she was 6, and started competing competitively three years later.
Fennell won the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) Junior Stroke Play Championship when she was 13, and repeated the feat earlier this month at Forest Akers East Golf Course.
“It was nice to win after a long time because I’ve struggled the last couple years with my game,” she said. “I’ve been all over the place, so I was happy to play well.”
Playing against the best has helped shape Fennell’s game, and fuel her competitive drive.
“I just like competing and playing against the best in the state and the country, and winning is fun, too,” Fennell said. “It was a little rough when I started competing, but then it got easier.”
Ketelaar knew of Fennell’s golf prowess for a while and was anticipating her arrival to high school.
“I knew about her in my first year coaching,” he said. “She lives on our home course, and she was literally on the range for all of my practices the last few years. I knew about her pedigree when she was in sixth grade.”
Fennell admittingly doesn’t enjoy the grind of practice, but understands the benefits that come with it.
“I hate practicing, but I know I have to if I want to get better and improve,” she said. “I try to come out every day and work on something.”
While Fennell is shy off the course, she has a steely demeanor on it. It’s a part of her game that sets her apart, according to Ketelaar.
“She is such a focused competitor who plays a lot of summer tournaments and has had an array of competitive experiences,” he said. “She’s very stoic, composed and a brilliant student of the game. She is mature beyond her years in terms of her course management and her understanding of effective practice techniques, and just how she approaches the game is kind of baffling to me.”
Fennell has the unique ability of visualizing each shot.
“I just see where I want to hit the ball in my mind and hit it there,” Fennell said. “And then I go from there to my next shot. I focus on what I can do.”
Ketelaar said she shows little fear, no matter the difficulty of the course.
“She doesn’t see trouble when she plays,” he said. “She’s very confident in her visualization and lines and she doesn’t fear out-of-bounds or water. She doesn't see them, and all she sees is what she’s trying to execute. She’s very good at putting on blinders and focusing on what she needs to do. Negative outcomes don’t come into her mind.”
Fennell, who tied for second at last week’s Jenison Invitational carding a 70, has also stepped into a leadership role.
The Falcons are an inexperienced group, and Fennell shares her vast knowledge of the game with her teammates.
“I've tried to make them feel more confident being on the course and around the greens,” Fennell said. “I help them with their swings so they feel more comfortable, and I love to help people because golf is my favorite sport and what I enjoy.”
Despite her young age, Ketelaar has appreciated Fennell’s willingness to help.
“She’s really been hands-on with the other girls, which is cool as only a sophomore,” he said. “She’s taken on a leadership role and realizes being a part of a team means helping the other players improve. She’s been giving back a lot more this year.”
Fennell continues to have high aspirations for this season.
“I want to win Regionals and win state while going as low as I can,” she said.
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) East Kentwood’s Elise Fennell follows a drive. (Middle) Fennell, hitting out of the sand, is looking to build on last season’s fourth-place finish in LP Division 1. (Photos by Josh Fennell and Jim Swoboda, respectively.)
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.