Gladstone Girls Claim first MHSAA Title

February 20, 2016

By Keith Shelton
Special for Second Half

MARQUETTE – In a deficit to begin the day, the Gladstone swimmers had their work cut out for them.

So when it got down to the final three events of the day, and the PA announcer read off the standings, the elation and excitement when Gladstone was called in first place for the first time was genuine – the result of a hard day's work with little room for error. 

By the time the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, it was a victory lap for the Braves, who were crowned Upper Peninsula champions for the first time Saturday at the MHSAA Girls Swimming & Diving Finals at Marquette High School.

Gladstone, which practices at the Northern Lights YMCA of Delta County, does not have a diving team. So the Braves could only watch Friday as their competitors built an advantage. 

"Knowing we don't have diving, and we were going to give up those points, I talked about building depth in the team," said Gladstone head coach Tom Desy. "If we were going to win, we had to be strong in all events, all the way through. The girls dedicated themselves this year to do that. I had a lot of girls step up and swim events that they normally don't like to swim, but they did it for the good of the team."

Gladstone won with 281 points, followed by Houghton with 244 and Marquette with 241. The relatively tight finish was even closer prior to the final events. Before the 17th event, the 200 freestyle relay, Houghton had a slim lead, followed by Marquette and Gladstone. All three teams were within eight points of each other. 

But the Braves' saved their best for last. Their 200 freestyle relay team of Jesse Flath, Sydney Herioux, Kirsten Williams and Lindsey McCann finished first with a time of 1:48.98. Gladstone followed with a victory in the 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, and 400 freestyle relay, sweeping the final four events to surge past the competition. 

"Marquette and some of the other teams were strong in the IMs, but I know our team is very strong in the back and the breaststroke," Desy said. "I kind of thought if we could stay close, when the back and the breaststroke came up, we could do well, and we did."

Katie Stephenson had an outstanding day for the Braves. The junior placed first in the 100 backstroke (1:04.15), the 50 freestyle (25.72), anchored the Braves winning 400 freestyle relay and was part of the winning 200 medley relay team, the latter of which had a time of 1:57.63, just four tenths of a second off setting a U.P. Finals record. 

"It was just adrenaline today," said Stephenson. "I got out of the 100 backstroke and I was breathing so hard, I puked. But I hopped back in. I wanted to finish it (400 freestyle relay) for (senior teammate) Jesse (Flath)."

Herioux, a freshman, won the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:12.40, three seconds faster than her seed time. Sophomore Claire Tembruell placed second in the 100 butterfly and third in the 100 back, and Flath placed second in both the 200 and 100 freestyles. 

"Everyone tried their hardest today; it was amazing," exclaimed Flath. "It's amazing considering it's only our fourth year as a team."

Houghton held the lead for a good part of the day, but coach Erik Johnson was satisfied with the runner-up finish, saying his team exceeded expectations. 

"If you told me at the end of the meet last year that we were going to finish second, I would have told you, you're out of your mind," he said. "We had a phenomenal meet."

The Houghton girls captured a bevy of second and third-place finishes, with no individual winners, but used their depth and consistency in all events to stay in contention.

"Our girls were undefeated during the season. They knew what they had to do and really stepped up," Johnson said. "Sam Olson was third in the 200 free, and second in the 500, and that helped a ton. It doesn't always come down to winning events. It comes down to those kids that squeeze into sixth place."

The Gladstone swim team, which has a co-op with neighboring Escanaba, was ineligible to compete in the U.P. Finals its first two years, as a club program. But Gladstone’s team became varsity for the 2014-15 season and quickly made a splash with a runner-up finish. 

Desy has been there to see his team grow. Prior to taking the coaching job with the Braves, he ran the feeder program at the YMCA for eight seasons. 

"This is a proud moment," Desy said. "I'm proud for the Escanaba and Gladstone combined schools. I’m proud of the girls that were on this team, some of which may not have continued through the YMCA without a high school program in place. I'm also very proud of the work I did for the Y, because the Y does a great job with the swim program. Normally without a high school team, those kids would go on to other sports. Now they have a focus to keep swimming and trying hard."

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch during a race Saturday at Marquette High School. (Middle) A Gladstone swimmer points to the clock as her team made its first MHSAA championship run. (Click for more from Jarvinen Photography.)

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.)