By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Four seasons ago, the Rochester girls golf team missed the MHSAA Finals – a rarity for a program that has won three of the last 10 Lower Peninsula Division 1 championships and finished runner-up twice.
But 2015 was a special fall. Much to coach Jeff Haney’s surprise, the Falcons – with those same four regulars anchoring the lineup – not only made the Final but came within a stroke of winning the Division 1 championship before finishing second to Traverse City West on a fifth-score tie-breaker.
And all of that set up a championship run that culminated in a 21-stroke victory at this season’s Final at Michigan State University’s Forest Akers East, a pleasing end to a wild ride.
“Their freshman year they missed going to the state finals as a team by four strokes. Sophomore year the missed out by two strokes,” Haney said. “To go from missing out on the state finals to then going to the state finals and being within a stroke of winning, to then follow it up by winning it, it’s been quite a journey. To me, that’s what I’ll remember this team by – the incredible run.”
An incredible finish to that incredible run made Rochester the clear-cut choice as Applebee’s statewide Team of the Month for October.
The Falcons won resoundingly at Forest Akers East after shooting what’s believed to be an MHSAA girls golf tournament record 289 to win their Regional on Oct. 5 at Twin Lakes in Oakland Township.
The run was fueled by balanced contributions from all five regulars.
In the Division 1 Final, the Falcons followed two who were among the individual top 10 finishers. Senior Brooke Busse was fifth at 148, five strokes back of the lead, and senior Veronica Haque carded an eighth-place 150. However, freshman Savannah Haque (158), senior Erika Yang (163) and junior Keri Yang (166) all also finished among the top 32.
At times through the season, the fourth and fifth players in the lineup shot the second or third-best scores at tournaments, something “definitely different in terms of depth, definitely different in that they all prepared so much, played so much and worked so much to get to this point,” said Haney, who took over the program in 2006. Four of the top five missed at least one tournament this fall, and Rochester still won a number of those events.
He noted that his isn’t the type of program that generally is able to count on adding tournament-experienced newcomers every fall. When the current seniors entered high school, Haney said he knew about Veronica Haque as a likely contributor, and that Busse had played some. But sisters Erika and Keri Yang were volleyball players when they decided to play golf instead.
Savannah Haque – Veronica’s sister – gave the Falcons another strong player this fall, and combined with her four teammates allowed Haney to focus his coaching differently.
In the past, he spent more time coaching his golfers on aiming points, club selection and things experienced golfers might already know entering high school. But this fall he was able to focus on the Falcons' mental games. And mental prowess was a strength of this team – Rochester made academic all-state with a grade-point average of 3.748, which ranked 11th in Division 1, and Erika Yang received individual academic all-state honorable mention.
As one might expect, on-course accolades abounded as well. Busse was named after the season to the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association all-state Super Team, while Veronica Haque made the first team and Savannah Haque and Erika Yang earned honorable mentions.
“If we didn’t win, it seemed like the year was going to be a failure, and it’s hard to play like that,” Haney said. “And the other thing for which I give the girls credit, they played the whole season with everybody telling (them they were) the best team, and it was a lot of pressure. I felt it, and I’m sure the girls felt it, and to me (winning) was as much a relief as I was excited.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2016-17
September: Breckenridge football - Report
PHOTOS: (Top) Brooke Busse watches a drive during this season’s Division 1 Final at Forest Akers East. (Middle) The Falcons line-up during the second day of the Final, from left: Keri Yang, Savannah Haque, Brooke Busse, Veronica Haque and Erika Yang. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.