Pioneer Puts Emphatic End to Title Wait

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

January 16, 2021

HUDSONVILLE – It was a moment that was long overdue for the Ann Arbor Pioneer girls swimming & diving team.

And this time, they left nothing to chance.

The Pioneers rolled to a decisive victory at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Hudsonville High School.

They won their first Finals since 2008 and avenged a heartbreaking half-point loss to Farmington Hills Mercy at last year’s championship meet.

“I know they were looking forward to coming back as soon as we got on the bus last year,” Pioneers coach Stefanie Kerska said. “This journey that they’ve been on for the last year has made them really appreciate and never take for granted simple things again. I know that this means a lot to them.”

Ann Arbor Pioneer tallied 368 points, while 2019 champion Farmington Hills Mercy placed runner-up at 184. Northville (164) was third and Brighton (159) finished fourth.

The top-ranked Pioneers were the favorites entering Saturday with a majority of their team returning from 2019. They lived up to that billing by winning all three relays.

“They swam really tough,” Kerska said. “They started the season tough out in a lake when it was freezing and they finished up really strong and they just never took their foot off the gas. It was a combination of discipline and desire for them, especially during the hiatus.

“As trying as it was, I think everyone is so grateful for everything everyone did to put this on to finish the season. We’ve been going since June, and they put the time and effort in to make this happen.”

Mercy coach Mike Venos knew Ann Arbor Pioneer was determined to overcome last year’s near miss. 

“They are an absolute class organization, they are one of the best coached teams in the state and I’m happy for them,” Venos said. “I saw the looks on their faces. As happy as we were last year, I saw the disappointment on their faces. We knew they were coming. Stefanie and the gang are building a nice powerhouse over there again.”

Ann Arbor Pioneer junior Vivian VanRenterghem took top honors in the 200-yard freestyle in a time of 1 minute, 52.34 seconds. She placed runner-up in the event last season.

“We had so much motivation this season,” VanRenterghem said. “We were so excited and so ready. It’s been a long season, but we’ve had a really great time. Last season was rough, but this is something we’ve been working toward for a long time. It’s a great team, our coaches are amazing and there’s no group of girls I’d rather do it with.” 

Pioneers’ freshman Stella Chapman was a welcomed addition to the program and made an instant impact with a win in the 100 backstroke (55.36). She also was a part of the winning 200 medley and 400 free relays. 

“I’m really proud of myself and the team for what we’ve done today,” Chapman said. “I understand that it was disappointing last year, but I know how hard everyone worked for this and we pushed through.”

Kerska was a former swimmer at Pioneer under longtime coach Denny Hill and his wife, Liz. They guided the Pioneers to 16 Finals crowns over four decades.

“They’ve both done so much for Ann Arbor Pioneer swimming and I have a picture of both of them in my office,” Kerska said. “I see them every day, and it was really important for us to bring that back to Pioneer.”

Mercy senior Greta Gidley capped off her career with a pair of individual titles in the 200 IM (2:00.69) and 500 free (4:58.52).

“Going into the last two weeks of the season I was kind of focused more on taking in the final times that I was going to get to have with this team,” Gidley said. “This team is so special that coming here and spending time with everyone was just amazing.

“Getting to spend an extra few months with these girls because our season got delayed was really a blessing in disguise. It was fun to win, but it was really fun to spend time with my best friends.”

Gidley was the reigning 100 freestyle champion. She finished runner-up in the IM a year ago. 

“She’s been the heart of this team for a while now, and she's leaving a really nice legacy,” Venos said. “Our girls swam very well, and I just got done telling them that their mental aspect today is what brought it because physically, with the amount of time that we had off there, there was no reason to swim as fast as we did. It was their mental approach.”

Plymouth junior Brady Kendall also collected a pair of championships.

Kendall won the 50 freestyle (22.98) and then followed with a victory in the 100 butterfly (54.35).

West Ottawa senior Lilly Brandt raced to a win in the 100 freestyle (51.53) and also took second in the 50 free behind Kendall.

The diving finals were held Friday and resulted in an upset as Mercy senior Ciara McCliment won ahead of 2019 champion Annie Costello of Ann Arbor Huron.

McCliment scored 399.70 points, while Costello was runner-up with 363.75.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Pioneer's Amelia Weyhing pushes toward the finish of her breaststroke heat Saturday. (Middle) Farmington Hills Mercy's Ciara McCliment performs a dive during Friday's competion. (Click to see more from  

Performance of the Week: Dexter's Lily Witte

November 22, 2022

Lily WitteLily Witte ♦ Dexter
Senior ♦ Swimming & Diving

The Dreadnaughts’ phenom capped her high school career with her fourth MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals championship, in the process obliterating the all-Finals record with a score of 554.65, more than 45 points higher than the previous mark. Witte had entered her final MHSAA meet having scored the second-highest score on the all-Finals list, 503.55, last year.

Witte won a junior national championship in 1-meter diving during the summer and has represented Team USA in multiple international competitions – and will be doing so this weekend in junior world championship competition in Montreal. In something of a rarity for elite divers, Witte also swam on two relays for Dexter at Saturday’s Finals, helping her team to a 10th-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle relay and 13th place in the 200 medley. She has signed to continue diving at Indiana University and intends to study computer science.

@mhsaasports 💯POW: Lily Witte #performanceoftheweek #diving #diver#statechamp #champion #congrats #dexter #MHSAA #highschoolsports #tiktalk #interview #TikTok#mistudentaid #fyp ♬ Beat Automotivo Tan Tan Tan Viral - WZ Beat

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MI Student Aid's "Performance of the Week" features are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at and find more information on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.

2022-23 Honorees

Nov. 17: Navea Gauthier, Shelby volleyball - Report
Nov. 10:
Derek Huisman, Holland Christian soccer - Report
Nov. 3:
Thomas Westphal, New Baltimore Anchor Bay cross country - Report
Oct. 27:
Justin Wickey, Colon football - Report
Oct. 20:
Owen DeMuth, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood tennis - Report
Oct. 13:
Mia Melendez, Ann Arbor Greenhills golf - Report
Oct. 6:
Shawn Foster, Grand Ledge football - Report
Sept. 30:
Hannah Smith, Temperance Bedford swimming - Report
Sept. 22:
Helen Sachs, Holland West Ottawa cross country - Report
Sept. 15:
Nina Horning, Lake Orion volleyball - Report
Sept 8:
Arturo Romero, Muskegon Oakridge soccer - Report
Sept. 1:
Austin King, Midland Dow tennis - Report
Aug. 25:
Olivia Hemmila, Troy Athens golf - Report

(Top photo by High School Sports Scene.)