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  

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.)