On Last Race's Last Leg, Mercy Pulls Thru

November 17, 2018

By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half

YPSILANTI – The look on the faces of Farmington Hills Mercy’s 200-yard medley relay team pretty much said it all.

And what was not said with facial expressions was very clearly communicated by the Marlins’ coaches as the opening race ended.

The reigning Division 1 champions needed to pick it up.

Unlike years past, this version wasn’t top heavy with individual event favorites. But it was extremely deep.

And on Saturday, the Marlins used that depth to best the field, rallying past Brighton on the last leg of the 400 freestyle relay to break a tie with the Bulldogs and capture their second consecutive Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship at the Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University.

“These are the kinds of moments you live for,” said Mercy coach Michael Venos, whose team shared first place with Brighton entering the final event of the meet. “Every little kid, in their backyard, is trying to make that last-second shot. And every swimmer grows up wanting to anchor that relay, or have the meet come down to the last relay. And these girls got to live that out today.”

Mercy was seeded fourth entering the race, with Brighton coming in as the seventh seed. But the Bulldogs got off to a good start thanks to a 51.26 opening leg by senior Chloe Reed. The Marlins kept their poise, and cut into that lead with strong second and third legs by senior Courtney Connolly and junior Julia Coffman. That set the stage for a little “backyard” magic by sophomore anchor Greta Gidley, who swam a 50.26 – the third-fastest leg of any competitor in the race – to help her team to a third-place finish and enough points to beat the Bulldogs, 211 to 209.

“I was trying to focus on my own race, stay in my own lane,” said Gidley, who rallied from more than two seconds back to help her team top Brighton. “I couldn’t see Brighton, so I had no idea where they were, but I could see the girl next to me from Saline, and I was catching up to her, so I just put my head down and finished as strong as I could.”

Everyone outside of the pool knew exactly what was happening, and the entire contingent from Mercy erupted in celebration when the times shot up on the big scoreboard.

The Marlins had struggled out of the gate, but slowly but surely crept closer and closer to the leaders. They scored 34 points in the 500 freestyle, as senior Annette Domkowski (13 points), junior Kylie Goit (12) and junior Lindsey Case (9) all finished top-nine to vault their team past Rockford with just four events left.

“We talk all the time that it’s never about winning,” said Venos, whose team did not finish top-3 in any individual event, let alone take an event victory. “It’s about being the best, and if they come here and they focus on what they need to do to go fast, they’re going to walk out successful.”

Brighton didn’t win an event either, with its highest finish a second in the 200 freestyle relay. Seniors Maddie Mince, Julianne Libler and Reed, along with freshman Drue Thielking, finished second to Harrison-Farmington. Bulldogs coach Jason Black said though it was a little disappointing to finish a close second at the Finals, he couldn’t be happier with his team’s performance.

“They fought, all day,” Black said. “All three relays earned all-state honors. Looks like we have a couple all-American consideration times. I’m happy, I really am.”

Another program making a little history – or at least matching it – was Harrison-Farmington. The Thunderbirds finished third overall with 199 points. They finished third a year ago, but a distant third. Coach Kyle Kinyon’s team won both the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, and senior Ashley Turak capped off a stellar career winning both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events, both in record-setting fashion. She won the 50-yard race in a time of 22.20, breaking her own meet record, set in Friday’s preliminary round. Her time of 48.72 in the 100-yard final smashed her own meet record as well, also set Friday at 49.18.

She teamed up with junior Lia Munson, senior Emma Inch and sophomore Madeline Greaves to win the 200-yard freestyle relay in a time of 1:33.34 – also a Division 1 meet record. The same foursome set an all-class/division Finals record in the 400 freestyle relay. Needless to say, Turak was more than pleased with how the day unfolded.

“Last year we went into the state meet and didn’t have high expectations,” said Turak, who earned the meet’s “swimmer of the year” honor for the second straight from the state coaches association. “This year I was going into this meet with a different mindset. I was going for a 21 (in the 50 freestyle), so after that race I wasn’t all that happy. But after each swim I raced, I got happier and happier. That 48 in the 100 free, that was one of my goals.”

Turak wasn’t the only swimmer setting records Saturday. Grand Haven junior Kathryn Ackerman crushed the field in the 200 individual medley, setting an all-class/division record of 1:57.25. The verbally-committed University of Michigan prospect also won the 100-yard butterfly in a time of 54.42, edging Rockford’s Morgan Kraus (54.52).

“I put in a lot of work this year, so I came in wanting to defend my (200 IM) title and be somewhere around my state record time,” Ackerman said. “That’s what I did today, so I’m real happy about it.”

Grand Ledge junior Lola Mull repeated in the 500-yard freestyle, falling just short of her own meet record time in the process. She swam 4:44.93, less than a half-second slower than she did at last year’s Finals. She was less than two tenths of a second off the pool record.

“My goal was to swim under 4:40,” Mull said. “I had my splits on my wall, looking at them every night. I was ready to break it. But I didn’t have a full taper heading into this meet. So I thought I would save it for junior nationals, but if I could do it today, I was going to go for it.”

Mull finished second in the 200 freestyle to Saline’s Maddie Luther, who won in a time of 1:49.14. The Hornets finished fifth as a team, with 186 points.

Rockford, which won the 200 medley relay behind the efforts of sophomore Sara Kraus, junior Masy Folcik, Morgan Kraus and freshman Ashley Lund, was fourth with 191 points.

Ann Arbor Skyline was sixth overall with 184, followed by Ann Arbor Pioneer (172), Northville (123), Hudsonville (105) and Grand Haven (96) in the top 10.

Individually, Skyline senior Zain Smith repeated in the 1-meter diving competition, beating out Ann Arbor Huron sophomore Annie Costello. Smith’s teammate, junior Casey Chung, also won a second straight championship, that coming in the 100 backstroke. 

Hudsonville junior Claire Tuttle was also a repeat champion, winning the 100 breaststroke.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Farmington Hills Mercy's Courtney Connolly played a key role in her team's meet-winning relay performance Saturday. (Middle) Grand Haven's Kathryn Ackerman swims to one of her multiple individual championships. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)