Close Finish Goes to Houghton Girls

February 18, 2017

By Ryan Stieg
Special for Second Half

MARQUETTE – Sometimes just one event can make the difference between a happy experience and a devastating one.

And that’s what happened at the girls Upper Peninsula Swimming & Diving Finals on Saturday.

Heading into the final event, Houghton led Marquette by just one point, and a tension-filled atmosphere filled the pool deck at Marquette Senior High School. Gremlins head coach Erik Johnson had an intense look on his face as he wondered if his team would grasp its first championship since 2014.

In the end, Johnson ended up pumping his fist in excitement and hugging his assistants as the Gremlins won the 400-yard freestyle relay and the team title, finishing ahead of the Redettes.

“We knew we had to do well in that last race to finish in front of Marquette and the girls took care of business,” Johnson said. “That relay has been a point of emphasis for us all year and to finish it off is something special.”

“There were a lot of emotions coming out and I don’t have much of a voice left, but this is a great feeling.”

In addition to the big relay win, Houghton also took first in two individual events as Samantha Olson won the 200 free and Tessa Meyer won the 100 butterfly.

Marquette head coach Nathan McFarren said it came down to depth, and that Houghton just had a little more of it this year.

“We had some pretty outstanding swims today,” he said. “I told the girls that we aren’t going to get second place every year, and that we’ll continue to grow. I think we knocked it out of the park today on both the boys and girls side, but I have to give credit to Erik though. They just gave us more than we could handle.”

The Redettes won the other two relays, the 200 medley and the 200 free. They also had two individual champions as Taryn Aho won both the 200 individual medley and the 500 free, while Jayme Winn took first in the 100 freestyle.

Gladstone, who won the meet last year, took third this year with 224 points, while Rudyard took fourth with 146. The Braves won one event as Sydney Herioux finished first in the 100 breaststroke, while Rudyard won two. Trista MacDowell took first in both the 50 free and 100 backstroke.

Braves head coach Tom Desy said his team lacked the depth of last year’s championship squad, but he was pleased with how his team performed.

“I thought the girls did pretty well,” he said. “We had some sickness come through our team the last couple of weeks, but the ones who were able to show up have done a great job. They had some self-doubt coming in, but they did well and I’m proud of them. We were just a little shorthanded.”

Westwood ended up in ninth place, but the Patriots did have one individual champion as Bethany Laasko won the 1-meter diving competition Friday night.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Houghton swimmer races during Saturday's Upper Peninsula Finals. (Middle) Swimmers launch during an event at Marquette High School. (Click to see more from Jarvinen Photos.)

East Grand Rapids' Briggs to Receive Deserved Spotlight for Half-Century of Swim

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

May 17, 2024

EAST GRAND RAPIDS – When the idea was presented to celebrate his coaching milestone, Milton “Butch” Briggs balked at it.

West MichiganThe longtime East Grand Rapids swimming & diving coach doesn’t like to be the center of attention, although his teams certainly have been over the last 50 years as he’s established a pair of perennial state powerhouses. 

“He vehemently said, ‘No, we’re not doing this,’” Pioneers assistant girls coach Gwen Barnes said. “But it’s going to be super cool and so deserving. We need to mark this occasion as a community and swimming community. He has influenced so many people and been an active member of the community for a long time.”

On Saturday, the East Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Alumni Association will commemorate Briggs and his 50 years of coaching at the school.

Briggs took over the East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving program for the 1972-73 season, and the girls program beginning in the fall of 1974. He has coached 102 seasons total, winning 26 MHSAA Finals championships with the girls and 12 with the boys.

Briggs has always wanted the focus to be on his teams rather than himself.

“He is not one who likes the spotlight,” retired Pioneers athletic director Tim Johnston said. “He is a very private man, but it is awesome that this group of alumni, swimmers and parents want to celebrate him.

“He is one of the best coaches I have ever had the opportunity to work with, but to be completely honest, he is a better person and more than just a coach. That is the truth.”

Past EGR swimmer Kris Ward was a member of the first girls state championship team in 1978.

“He had a huge impact on me,” Ward said. “Just from understanding hard work and dedication and being part of a team. Then following it through. He worked with a variety of people on the team and helped us to come together. It was all about life lessons, and he's teaching the kids that while still being successful.”

Briggs also coached Ward’s daughters Alex, Ashley and Abby.

“He was always about connecting with the kids,” Ward said. “My kids were all able to swim for him, and so I had that experience with him in a different way and seeing how he was with all of my girls on the team.

“He starts with connecting with one person and carries that through to make the success better.” 

Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. Barnes, an assistant coach for the girls team the past three years, also swam under Briggs from 1984-87.

Her teams won four straight Finals championships and never lost a dual meet.

“There were high expectations for us, and despite them being unspoken, we felt it,” Barnes said. “We wanted and felt this desire to do our best on that team each year, and he instilled this culture of commitment and hard work. Every swimmer had different abilities, but he was able to tap into getting us to do our best.”

Barnes has gained a different perspective of Briggs as his assistant.

While she noted that he still displays the same traits as far as his demeanor, sense of humor, kindness and patience, his devotion to the program and his student-athletes also has never wavered.

“Coaching with him as an assistant, you see how much work and time he puts in that goes unnoticed sometimes,” Barnes said. “To maintain that level of commitment for 50 years is pretty remarkable, and he still has this presence when on the pool deck that challenges everybody to do their best. He set the same standard for everyone, and everyone on the team feels important, which I think is cool.

“He weaves in a lot of stories and lessons from over the years and maintains traditions that I think make current teams feel like they are a part of and building onto the history.”

Briggs, who played football and ran track & field in high school, was inducted into the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame in 2009. The EGR natatorium was named after him in 2014.

Briggs, who taught at Ottawa Hills High School, has received national attention, too. In June 2020, he was named National Girls Swim Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association. Briggs had received the same honor in 2011.

He wrote this of his coaching philosophy as part of the nomination for the NFHS girls swimming award:

“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.”

Ward said she expects about 200 people to attend Saturday’s celebration.

“He has impacted so many people in the swimming community, and there is something special in what he has created,” Ward said. “All of the kids on the current teams and their families will be there, as well as a lot of different generations. I also know that there will be people coming from far away.”

As far as Briggs’ future, Barnes doesn’t see him stepping down any time soon.

“I don’t really ever see him stopping,” she said. “His passion is EGR swim, and I think he will continue to be a part of the program as he can and wants to be.”

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five 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) Longtime East Grand Rapids swimming coach Butch Briggs, right, will be celebrated this weekend for his half-century of coaching the Pioneers. (Middle) Briggs, second from far left, celebrates the 2014 Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship with his girls team. (Top photo by Kris Ward; middle photo by High School Sports Scene.)