Ogemaw Heights Record-Setter Showing Path to Success with 3rd Finals Trip

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

November 18, 2022

When Kiera Danitz leaves the blocks during this weekend’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Swimming & Diving Championships, it will feel pretty familiar to her.

The Ogemaw Heights junior has already experienced qualifying and competing at the Finals twice.

But she will experience some unfamiliarity this time too. She won’t have her training partner and teammate of the past two seasons, Clair Hines, with her. However, Danitz is going into this Finals as the fastest swimmer the school and conference has ever produced in her two events, the 50 and 100-yard freestyles.

She didn’t reach the LPD3 championship heats the last two seasons, but is expected to do so this weekend – and contend for titles in both races. She enters as the top seed in the 50 and the second seed in the 100.

Long before this season, Danitz already was listed on the Falcons’ pool wall record boards with Hines in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays. With Hines moving on to swim for Aquinas College this year – she’s already set a Saints record – Danitz lost a training partner.  

That didn’t slow her down, thankfully, according to her coach Louise Hofer.

“The two of them were very good friends and really good swimming partners, pushing each other,” Hofer said. “This is the first year that Kiera is without her, and she has had to step up her game a little bit and be more of the swimming leader on the team.  

“She’s done a fantastic job in the water motivating the other girls to do the best they can.”

So far this fall, Danitz has broken records that stood for more than 20 years in both the 50 and 100. She also broke the Ogemaw Heights pool record in 50.

The school and conference 50 free records were set at the recent Independent Swim Conference championships – she won in 24.15 seconds. The conference 100 free record of 53:41 also was set during the two-day event held at Saginaw Valley State University. For her record-setting accomplishments, Danitz was named the ISC Swimmer of the Meet. Those are also her seed times for this weekend.

Danitz and coach Louise Hofer stand over the broken school record board listings Danitz’s times will replace. Swimming against the state’s best could bring out the best in Danitz, who started competing in the water in fourth grade when her mother suggested she give it a try.

“As a swimmer, she always does better when she’s in the hunt, when she’s a little bit behind,” Hofer pointed out. “If she’s got somebody that she can see their toes or she can see their shoulders or whatever, she is going to push herself much harder than if she is way out front.”

The lessons learned from the last two Finals should also bode well for the decorated junior.

“It was such a valuable learning experience for her,” Hofer said. “It has just bolstered her confidence.” 

Regardless of how things go this weekend, Danitz already has plans to re-write the record books next year. She’s ready to do the work to improve on her own records and go after a couple more her senior year.

“I want to break the 200 IM record and maybe the 200 free records,” she said. “I am hoping for my 50 free to get a 23 (seconds) and I hope to get a 52 by the end of my senior year.”

Danitz’s success has been well supported by her teammates, and in fact may lead to other records being broken on both the boys and the girls teams.

Having recognizable names makes the records more attainable and provides motivation, the 21-year veteran coach Hofer believes.   

“They’re very definitely paying attention to the new names going on the wall because these are kids that they know,” Hofer said. “You can see it in the kids’ eyes when they stand there and look at stuff.

“You can see the wheels spinning in their head,” she continued. “And they’re thinking, ‘OK … I know her… I know what (level) of work she put in … I can do it too.’”

Reese Engel and Alejandra Azcona are the other members of the school-record 200 relay team with Danitz and Hines. Jordan Nelson and Azcona join them on the wall for the 400 relay.

Hofer likes the idea of Danitz going after the 200 IM record. She had Danitz try that race a few times this year for a little variety.

“Kiera wants to improve upon those before she leaves,” Hofer said. “We dabbled with the 200. 

“It was good for her to swim some other events and not be so laser-focused at every competition swimming the 50 and 100.”

Hofer is confident her stellar swimmer will do whatever it takes to meet those goals.

“Kiera is motivated, and she’s super competitive,” Hofer said. “She’s willing to do the work, and she knows what kind of work she needs to do.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Ogemaw Heights’ Kiera Danitz pops up from the water happy after touching the wall first during one of her races at the Independent Swim Conference championship meet. (Middle) Danitz and coach Louise Hofer stand over the broken 50 freestyle record board listings Danitz’s times will replace. (Top photo by Justin Kruskie Photography. Middle photo by Christine Rice.)

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.)