Gremlin Girls Swim To U.P. Title

By John Vrancic
Special for

February 16, 2013

MARQUETTE — Many of the Houghton High School girls may be too young to remember when the Gremlins had last earned an Upper Peninsula swimming title.

The Gremlins, however, created their own memories on Saturday as they gained their first title in 12 years with 339 points. They were followed by 11-time defending champion Marquette 319 and Sault Ste. Marie 155.

“In all the recent history, not only did we have the depth,” Houghton coach Roger Woods said shortly after diving in the pool with his team moments after receiving the championship trophy. “We also had the top end talent. We just couldn’t win the relays. Last year, we got swept in the relays. This year, we won only one. But we were close in the others.”

Houghton senior Rebecca Jaczczak retained her 50-yard freestyle title in 25.62 seconds and copped her first 100 backstroke crown (1:07.14) at the Marquette High School pool.

“I’m real happy with that,” said Jaczczak, who hopes to major in exercise science, but is undecided on which college she wants to attend. “Coming in here as a defending champion in 50 freestyle was a great motivator. All the hard work and focus this season paid off. Also, our coach is phenomenal. He has a passion for everything we do. HIs positive thinking rubs off an all of us.”

Jaczazak also helped the Gremlins open with a victory in the 200 medley relay and place second in the 400 freestyle relay.

Sophomore Hannah Gundlach, also a part of the Gremlins’ 400 relay, added a first in 500 freestyle (5:40.21) and second in 200 freestyle (2:08.79).

“Hannah knows how to swim in a big meet,” said Woods. “It was the same thing in the 200. When I saw her take off out of the gates, I knew she was going to have a good day.”

Adding an individual first for Houghton was sophomore Sophie Witting in 100 butterfly (1:09.32), who also helped the winning 200 medley relay and second-place 200 freestyle unit.

Marquette’s leader was senior Katy Beckstrom, who won 100 breaststroke (1:12.37) and helped the winning 400 freestyle relay and runner-up 200 medley relay.

“Our senior girls had an amazing end to their season,” said Marquette coach Nate McFarren. “All of them had personal bests. Personally, I wanted everything for all our kids. I’m very proud of them, their parents, our assistant coaches, helpers and community.”

Marquette’s underclassmen showed plenty of promise in this meet. A prime example was the 500 freestyle where the Redettes took three of the top five places.

For example, sophomore Janelle Carroll was runner-up in the 500 freestyle (5:50.14) and helped the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

Classmate Logan Vear also helped the two shorter relays and placed second in 200 individual medley (2:30.55) and third in 100 butterfly (1:11.11).

“We’re excited about the girls we have coming back,” said McFarren. “I think we have the potential to field a very strong team next year.”

Next year’s U.P. FInals will be held at Houghton.

“We’re looking forward to that,” said Hancock-Jeffers coach Joanne Rouleau. “That will be a nice, short trip. All we’ll have to do is go across the (Portage Canal lift) bridge.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers leap at the start of a race during Saturday's Finals at Marquette High School. (Middle) Champion Houghton poses on the trophy stand after clinching this season's title. (Photos courtesy of Keith Freeman of Freeman's 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.)