Spring Lake Rallies, Claims 1st Finals Win

October 18, 2014

By Tom Kendra
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING – You could say that Spring Lake golf coach George Bitner was due.

Bitner, who started coaching boys golf at Spring Lake in 1968 and founded the school’s girls golf program in 1980, reached the pinnacle Saturday when his girls team rallied for the school’s first-ever golf MHSAA championship at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final at Forest Akers East.

“This is a different bunch,” explained Bitner, who calls himself 77 years young. “They are range rats that just want to get better. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

The Lakers delivered the old golf coach his first MHSAA title in dramatic fashion, erasing a six-stroke deficit to Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood after Friday’s opening round near the campus of Michigan State University.

Spring Lake sophomore Anna Kramer finished second overall with scores of 78 and 75, keying the Lakers’ Saturday charge as all five players improved their score from Friday for a surprisingly wide 18-stroke victory.

Spring Lake finished with a two-day total of 659, Cranbrook-Kingswood was second at 677, followed by defending champion Detroit Country Day (703), Grosse Ile (704) and Warren Regina (718).

“We were behind after the first day, but not by much, so our goal was for all of us to play a little better and that’s exactly what happened,” said Kramer, who drove the ball well all day to improve on her fourth-place Finals finish last fall as a freshman.

While it was a tough day for Cranbrook, which placed second for the third consecutive year, senior Cordelia Chan capped her stellar career for the Cranes by repeating as Division 3 medalist.

Chan fired her second consecutive 75 in the cold, windy conditions to hold off Kramer by three shots. Emily Barker of Lake Odessa Lakewood placed third at 160.

“I wasn’t actually swinging very well, but the course was open enough where it kind of played to my mistakes,” Chan explained. “I worked on my game last night with my dad so that kind of helped – with my tee shots, especially.”

Freshman Kate Cao was second for Cranbrook at 172 and senior Molly Wiener third at 174.

The same three teams finished 1-2-3 last fall as well, just in different order. Country Day and Cranbrook actually tied for first, but the Yellowjackets prevailed on the fifth-player tiebreaker. Spring Lake took third.

This year, Spring Lake was the team that made the biggest adjustments between Friday’s opening round and the close of play Saturday afternoon. 

All five of the Lakers’ players improved their score by at least two strokes, with the biggest moves coming in the middle of the lineup. Junior Kayla Krueger shot 87-81-168 and senior Ginnie Olszewski shot 83-79-162. Junior Emma Conroy (90-86-176) and freshman Madelyn Nelson (90-88-178) rounded out the Spring Lake scoring.

Olszewski, the only senior in the Spring Lake top five, achieved her goal of breaking 80 on Saturday despite a quadruple bogey on her final hole. It was quite an improvement from her freshman year, when she shot rounds of 117 and 116. 

“We went from basically nothing in my freshman year to state champs in my senior year, so that feels really, really, really good,” Olszewski said. “It’s so cool that it wasn’t just one of us. Everyone stepped up, which is awesome for Coach Bitner.”

Bitner, who was inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, has built his coaching philosophy around the acronym “kismif” – keep it simple, make it fun. 

He believes that emphasis helped his girls relax and go out and play their most impressive team round of the season Saturday.

“I honestly wasn’t worried with the six-stroke deficit one bit,” said Bitner, who started his coaching career 50 years ago as the boys track coach at Holton High School in 1964. “The girls were so focused. They just went out and did it.” 

Bitner, who gave a golf lesson to his wife, Eunice, on their first date, has had the privilege of coaching both of his children, Alyson and Andy, at Spring Lake. And just because he has now won an elusive MHSAA Finals championship, he has no plans to stop coaching.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I retired,” said Bitner, who will head with his wife next week to his winter home in North Fort Myers, Fla., where he stays until returning in early March to coach the Spring Lake boys golf team. “And besides, I have four of my top five players back and I had to leave quite a few more good players off for state.”

Spoken like a coach who is just getting started. 

Click for full results.

PHOTO: Spring Lake golfers pose with their first-ever MHSAA championship trophy Saturday at Forest Akers East. (Photo courtesy of the Grand Haven Tribune.)

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

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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.