Full-Team Effort, Strong Saturday Swims Key Mercy's Latest Podium Climb

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

November 18, 2023

HOLLAND – Farmington Hills Mercy donned maroon Nike dunk low tennis shoes at the conclusion of Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 2 Girls Swimming & Diving Finals.

It seemed rather appropriate as the Marlins’ effort was an absolute slam dunk.

Mercy captured its first Finals since 2019 at the Holland Aquatic Center, and did so in dominating fashion, winning by more than 125 points. 

The Marlins scored a whopping 326, while runner-up Birmingham Seaholm finished with 198. Grand Rapids Northview (172) and Ann Arbor Skyline (164) rounded out the top four.

“I don’t know if I thought it would be as dominating a performance as it was,” Mercy coach Mike Venos said. “We always kind of gear up for Friday and leave it all in the pool and kind of hang on on Saturday, but they stepped it up again today.

Grosse Pointe South swimming“In the 40 years I've been coaching, I don’t know if we've had a team that has swam as well on Saturday as we did this year. We brought 19 girls here, and it was truly a team effort.”

The 2022 champion, East Grand Rapids, moved to Division 3 this season, making way for a new champion to be crowned.

The Marlins were led by senior Amylia Higgins, who swam to victories in the 50-yard freestyle (23.57) and 100 freestyle (50.84).

“It’s been amazing competing with these girls the past two days, but it's never been about winning for us,” Higgins said. “Personally, my goal going into this meet was to savor the last few moments of wearing a Mercy cap and representing this team.

“We all swam for each other and the team is what powers us. Swimming for the team is what got us here.”

Mercy, which won the 200 freestyle relay as well, used its depth and talent to overwhelm the field.

“We worked really hard all season to make sure everyone was in a good mindset coming into this meet,” senior captain Elena Garza said. “The fact that we are all able to come together and do this as a team was really important. We couldn't have done it without each other and the support system we’ve built.”

Seaholm posted its best finish since winning three consecutive Division 2 Finals from 2019-2021.

“Today we were kind of flat, and we were phenomenal yesterday (Friday),” Seaholm coach Karl Hodgson said. “It was one of the best preliminaries I can remember. It was a special day, but I knew today would be difficult because Mercy has such good swimmers and an all-around team. They had swimmers everywhere, and we had holes.”

Division 2 divingAfter the slow start, Seaholm gained momentum with a win by senior Kelley Hassett in the 500 freestyle.

She also was the 500 freestyle champion last year.

“It was my goal to win the 500, and I’m so proud of my team because we’ve come so far this year,” said Hassett, who also anchored the winning 400 freestyle relay. “Getting second is a huge deal to us.”

Fenton junior Tess Heavner claimed a pair of championships in the 200 IM (2:03.69) and 100 backstroke (55.86).

“I came in knowing I was seeded first in both of my events, so I was really excited to come out and race and see what I could do,” Heavner said. “I’m happy with how I swam, and it felt really good to get state titles in both events. I really like those events, and they are my better events.”

Byron Center senior Brooklyn Beauch ended a stellar career with a victory in the 100 butterfly (54.68), while Ann Arbor Skyline freshman Adrienne Schadler clocked a 1:49.88 to win the 200 freestyle. Farmington senior Mackenzie Bush earned the win in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.60), and Bella Emery of Holt won the diving state title with a score of 383.65. 

Click for full results

(Action photos by 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.)