For Love of Game, Hudsonville Ace Plays Thru Injury to Finish Season at Finals

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

October 20, 2021

HUDSONVILLE – Ella Thomasma’s love of the game was worth the pain. 

The Hudsonville junior persevered through a serious knee injury to finish her season among the best golfers in the state. 

Thomasma competed at this past weekend’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals as an individual qualifier and placed 47th overall. She carded rounds of 89 and 90 at The Meadows at Grand Valley State for a two-day total of 179.

And Thomasma made the field, and then played those back-to-back 18-hole rounds, with a torn right knee ligament suffered six months ago.

“It was so rewarding to finish the season, and it’s pretty cool to be able to say I made it the entire way,” Thomasma said. “No one would probably do what I did, that would be my guess, but I just love golf and I didn’t want to miss my junior year.”

Thomasma suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in March during high school soccer tryouts and was done for the rest of that season.

Doctors encouraged Thomasma to have surgery, but she opted out due to her desire to play golf this fall.

“The doctor told me I should do it when the injury happened, but I told him that I couldn’t do that,” Thomasma said. “I had to wait until golf season was done because I knew I wanted to play golf.”

Hudsonville girls golf coach Joe DeSmit knew Thomasma was committed to playing despite the injury.

“When it happened, she said she wasn’t getting surgery until after the season so she knew right away she was going to try and go as long as she could,” he said. “She even went out West with Young Life and had to do hikes. We talked about getting a medical clearance to use a cart, but she didn’t want any part of it.”

Hudsonville golfThomasma emerged as the Eagles’ top golfer this fall despite the overwhelming pain she experienced often.

“It’s been pretty bad, and it hurts all the time, but I wasn’t going to stop golfing,” Thomasma said. “I think walking was the hardest part for me. It wasn’t hitting the ball, it was walking all the courses – and some of them were tough to walk. It just made it tougher.”

Thomasma wore a brace on the knee to alleviate some of the pain. 

“When I was swinging (the club), it was fine, but I would hit my shot and then be like, ‘Dang, I have to walk to the next shot now,’” Thomasma said. “It was tough, but I did it.”

DeSmit was proud of Thomasma for her grit and determination.

“I just think it’s awesome what she did this year, and she’s just a grinder,” he said. “I could tear up about it because she just gutted it out all year. 

“It’s a testament to her for grinding through it and putting her team ahead of herself and saying that she was going to play to help the team.”

Hudsonville competed at the Regional earlier this month at Crystal Mountain and finished fifth as a team. The top three teams from Regionals advance to Finals.

Thomasma, however, qualified as an individual after firing a 92 to tie for ninth – and earn the third of three qualifying spots for golfers whose teams do not advance as a whole.

“I knew if I was going to wait to have surgery, I wanted to make it as far as I possibly could and I did it,” Thomasma said. “The conditions at the state finals were tough, but I didn’t play awful so I’m not complaining. I wish I would’ve played better, but I didn’t end up too bad.”

Thomasma received a special honor at the end of the season.

“She was given the Eagle Award, which is given to an athlete that you want to replicate (from) our program,” DeSmit said. “Not many kids would do that, and she’s just tough.”

Thomasma, who said her meniscus was probably torn as well because of the delay, was scheduled to have surgery this week.

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) Hudsonville’s Ella Thomasma sends a drive during Saturday’s second round at The Meadows. (Middle) Thomasma, playing the Finals with a torn ACL, puts a putt close to the cup. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

Michigan Leaders in 3 Sports Earn National Honors from NFHS Coaches Association

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

January 16, 2024

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 headshotSteve 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 headshotVicky 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.