East Grand Rapids Claims 7 Event Wins and 7th Finals Title Over Last 8 Seasons

By Teddy Rydquist
Special for MHSAA.com

November 18, 2023

ROCHESTER – East Grand Rapids captured its seventh MHSAA Finals girls swimming & diving championship over the last eight seasons Saturday by totaling 420 points at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 meet at Oakland University.

The title was East Grand Rapids’ fifth in Division 3 since 2016, with the Pioneers also having added Division 2 victories in 2017 and 2022.

Winning seven of the 12 events Saturday, including all three relays, East Grand Rapids was led by junior Kate Simon, who was victorious in both the 100 and 200-yard freestyles and was a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams, earning herself the Swimmer of the Meet honor from the Michigan Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association.

“It’s really cool, especially for East. We’re such a good team, and they always have a good team,” Simon said of the honor.

“It’s cool to do it under Butch, too.”

Flat Rock's Lauren McNamara swims to the championship in the 200 individual medley.While the Pioneers had a couple of young athletes in freshman Addie Hein and sophomore Ellery Chandler play valuable roles Saturday, Simon pointed to the leadership of the Class of 2024 as a major reason why this team continued to thrive.

“I think the seniors and the captains have been really good leaders,” she began. “They’ve really brought our team together, and I think made this team such good friends.”

The “Butch” Simon referenced is legendary head coach Milton “Butch” Briggs, with Saturday’s triumph representing the latest accomplishment in a long line of success for one of the sport’s most accomplished program leaders.

Even with all of the winning the program has done under his watch, his 2023 Pioneers still found a way to make themselves special and stand out from some of his teams of years past.

“What makes this group special is we lost the first two meets of the year, and we hadn’t lost a dual meet in quite a few years,” Briggs shared. “So just to watch this group of girls come together, not only as athletes, but as friends and as people.

“We had a few of our age group coaches step up and help with the program this year, and it made us a lot more complete on depth. It was just fun to be around them; it was the best part of my day.”

Like Simon, Chandler was part of two relay teams for East Grand Rapids and tallied an individual victory in the 100 breaststroke with an All-American consolation qualifying time of 1:03.17.

EGR's Ellery Chandler surges to the win in the 100 breaststroke. Alongside Hein and Simon, Chandler is a member of the promising core the Pioneers figure to return in 2024 and she delivered a smiling, humble response when asked about her individual success.

“It feels good to have my hard work pay off and get to do it as a team,” Chandler said.

East Grand Rapids also took home first place in 1-meter diving, courtesy of senior Maria Colombo’s score of 441.4. Addy Buck, her Pioneers classmate, was right behind her in second place at 390.9.

Rounding out the top-five teams Saturday were Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood with 219 points, Bloomfield Hills Marian (214), Milan (163) and Holland Christian (145).

Freshman Camryn Siegers won the 100 backstroke for Holland Christian at 55.37 seconds, and Flat Rock senior Lauren McNamara touched the wall first in both the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, posting times of 55.68 and 2:05.59, respectively.

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PHOTOS (Top) East Grand Rapids launches during a relay exchange Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center. (Middle) Flat Rock's Lauren McNamara swims to the championship in the 200 individual medley. (Below) EGR's Ellery Chandler surges to the win in the 100 breaststroke. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.) 

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

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)