Loy Norrix Swim & Dive Rooted in Community

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

November 12, 2019

KALAMAZOO — When Paul Mahar was hired to coach at Loy Norrix High School, he had nine returning swimmers on a team of just 14 girls.

That was in 2004, and the program was on the verge of becoming a co-op with Kalamazoo Central High School.

But Mahar turned the girls swimming & diving program around in a “rags to riches” story, said athletic director Andrew Laboe.

Norrix has 45 girls on this year’s team, with two individual and three relay team qualifiers so far for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals on Nov. 22-23 at Oakland University.

Four divers – juniors Samantha Vande Pol, Laurel Wolfe, Sofie Santos and freshman Wen Wadsworth – are all headed to Regionals this week hoping to qualify for the Finals as well.

“(Mahar) has built a program through blood, sweat and tears with excitement, building a community education youth program and through the non-stop drumbeat of recruiting within our school,” Laboe said.

The Knights ended the regular season with a 7-2 record, including a win over perennial power Battle Creek Lakeview.

“Beating Lakeview was a big milestone for them,” Laboe said. “(Norrix is) a very young team this year, and we are hoping to build on that in the next years.”

Senior Carly Loken said a key to the team’s success is the girls’ relationships with each other.

“We have a lot of girls who swam club, and we’re all friends,” she said. “Also, (it helps) being able to pull in kids their freshman and sophomore years and welcome them into the group, and (we) really enjoy spending time together.”

Mahar prefers to deflect the attention from himself to the athletes, but his enthusiasm for the program is evident.

“My first few years I just had my upperclassmen pull kids in, just kids recruiting kids,” he said. “The last 10 years or so with me being in the building (as a teacher), I’ve been able to create relationships with kids and bring them out.

“Just siblings coming out and friends bringing friends out, that’s the big part of it.”

Loy Norrix finished third at the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference championships over the weekend, not a surprise to sophomore Annika Schnell.

“It’s important that we have fast girls, but we also have swimmers who hold our team together,” she said. “We have a lot of depth.”

Community strong

One key to Mahar’s success is a community program he started which now includes K-Central.

“The first few years it was called Knights United,” he said. “Then we had a great conversation with Kalamazoo Central parents to bring swimming back to the city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Public Schools.

“We sat down and agreed we would come together, so we changed it to Kalamazoo United. We started with 25 boys and girls, and now we’re at about 250 kids year round.”

The program, hosted six months at Norrix and six at Central, includes children as young as 4 years old in the “Learn to Swim” class, and up to 18 years old.

Schnell, who became the first Knight headed to the MHSAA Finals when she qualified in the 50-yard freestyle, started in the community program at age 9 and now works with the younger swimmers.

Over the weekend, she also qualified in the 100 butterfly.

One advantage, she said, is having the same coach when girls transition to the high school team.

Mahar agreed.

“The majority of the kids who are on the team I’ve known since they were in third or fourth grade. So I’ve created a relationship with all these kids who are in the water right now for over a decade, and it’s been really great,” he said.

Loken also came through the community program.

“Coach Mahar has been my coach ever since I was little, so I kind of grew up with him and I always knew that I wanted to be a part of this environment,” she said.

“I remember one practice when I was little, (high schoolers) came and helped us with strokes, and I really liked that and wanted to be a part of that group.”

Schnell qualified for the Finals last year and, while she did not make it to the second day’s championship and consolation races, she said it was a good learning experience.

“I didn’t do so hot last year,” she said. “I had an injury. That wasn’t very fun.

“This year, I’m hoping to make one more cut than last year. I didn’t really come in prepared last year, but now I have experience. It’s always good to go with friends.”

Schnell will have a few friends with her this year, with junior Ellie Haase in the 100 backstroke and all three relay teams headed to Oakland so far.

‘No captains, all leaders’

The coach encourages swimmers to be leaders.

“We decided to take away captains, and we asked the girls to start building better relations with each other and create leaders over there,” Mahar said. “Our motto is ‘No captains, all leaders.’

“That creates an opportunity for a newbie, which we call a first-year kid or a freshman or sophomore, a chance to step up and be a leader in some way. It doesn’t always have to be in the pool. Maybe it’s in the locker room. Maybe it’s in the classroom.”

Mahar, who retired this year from coaching the school’s boys team, said when he was first hired, he had no idea that he would still be at Norrix 15 years later.

“I’m fortunate that I made the decision to stay in Kalamazoo, not only to teach but also coach and raise my family here,” he said. “I have two female swimmers who will be coming up soon, so I’m excited about that.”

Those are his daughters, Grace, an eighth grader, and Lillian, a sixth grader. Both participate in the community feeder program.

“I’m very fortunate that I have so many families, parents, athletes who have stuck with us and built this together, and that’s really the only reason we are as successful as we are today,” he said.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at pamkzoo@aol.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Loy Norrix celebrates its victory at the Allegan Invitational this fall. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Carly Loken, Annika Schnell, Ellie Haase and coach Paul Mahar. (Below) Haase prepares to launch during one of her races. (Top and below photos and Haase head shot courtesy of the Loy Norrix girls swimming & diving program; Loken, Schnell and Mahar head shots by Pam Shebest.)

MHSAA Winter Sports Start with Extended Basketball Schedules, New Wrestling Weights

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

December 13, 2022

The addition of two games to basketball regular-season schedules and a new series of wrestling weight classes are likely the most noticeable Winter 2022-23 changes as an estimated 65,000 athletes statewide take part in 13 sports for which the Michigan High School Athletic Association sponsors postseason tournaments.

Girls gymnastics and boys ice hockey teams were able to begin practice Oct. 31, with the rest of those sports beginning in November – including also girls and boys basketball, girls and boys bowling, girls competitive cheer, girls and boys skiing, Upper Peninsula girls and boys and Lower Peninsula boys swimming & diving, and girls and boys wrestling.

A variety of changes are in effect for winter sports this season, including a several that will be noteworthy and noticeable to teams and spectators alike.

Basketball remains the most-participated winter sport for MHSAA member schools with 33,000 athletes taking part last season, and for the first time, basketball teams may play up to 22 regular-season games. This increase from the previous 20-game schedule allows more games for teams at every high school level – varsity, junior varsity and freshman.

Another significant change has been made in wrestling, as the majority of boys wrestling weight classes have been adjusted for this season in anticipation of a national change coming in 2023-24. The updated boys weight classes are 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 144, 150, 157, 165, 175, 190, 215 and 285 pounds. Only 215 and 285 remain from the previous lineup. There is also one change to girls weight classes, with the 255 class replaced by 235 to also align with national high school standards.

A series of notable changes will affect how competition takes place at the MHSAA Tournament levels. In hockey, in addition to a new classification process that spread cooperative and single-school programs evenly throughout the three playoff divisions, the MHSAA Tournament will employ two changes. The Michigan Power Ratings (MPR) will be used to seed the entire Regional round, not just the top two teams, and prior to the start of Semifinals, a seeding committee will reseed the remaining four teams in each division with the top seed in each then facing the No. 4 seed, and the No. 2 seed facing No. 3.

Bowling also will see an MHSAA Tournament change, as the Team Regional format will mirror the long-standing Team Final with teams playing eight Baker games and two regular games at both levels.  And as also applied during the fall girls season, there is a new qualification process for divers seeking to advance to Lower Peninsula Boys Swimming & Diving Finals. In each of the three divisions, each Regional will be guaranteed 10 qualifiers for the Finals, with six more “floating” qualifier entries to be distributed to the Regionals that have one of the previous year’s top six returning Finals divers in their fields. If a team changes division from the previous season, any floating top-six spots are added to the six already allowed in the school’s new division.

A gymnastics rules change provides an opportunity for additional scoring during the floor exercise. A dance passage requirement was added in place of the former dance series requirement to encourage creativity and a more artistic use of dance. The dance passage requires gymnasts to include two Group 1 elements – one a leap with legs in cross or side split position, the other a superior element.

In competitive cheer, the penalty for going over the time limit in each round was adjusted to one penalty point for every second over the time limit, not to exceed 15 points. The new time limit rule is more lenient than the past penalty, which subtracted points based on ranges of time over the limit.

The 2022-23 Winter campaign culminates with postseason tournaments, as the championship schedule begins with the Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Swimming & Diving Finals on Feb. 18 and wraps up with the Boys Basketball Finals on March 25. Here is a complete list of winter tournament dates:

Boys Basketball
Districts – March 6, 8, 10
Regionals – March 13, 15
Quarterfinals – March 21
Semifinals – March 23-24
Finals – March 25

Girls Basketball
Districts – Feb. 27, March 1, 3
Regionals – March 7, 9
Quarterfinals – March 14
Semifinals – March 16-17
Finals – March 18

Regionals – Feb. 24-25
Finals – March 3-4

Competitive Cheer
District – Feb. 17-18
Regionals – Feb. 25
Finals – March 2-3

Regionals – March 4
Finals – March 10-11

Ice Hockey
Regionals – Feb. 20-March 1
Quarterfinals – March 4
Semifinals – March 9-10
Finals – March 11

Regionals – Feb. 13-17
Finals – Feb. 27

Swimming & Diving
Upper Peninsula Girls/Boys Finals – Feb. 18
Lower Peninsula Boys Diving Regionals – March 2
Lower Peninsula Boys Finals – March 10-11

Wrestling – Team
Districts – Feb. 8-9
Regionals – Feb. 15
Finals – Feb. 24-25

Wrestling – Individual
Districts – Feb. 11
Regionals – Feb. 18
Finals – March 3-4

The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.