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.
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 HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
MARQUETTE – Thanks to the informative meet announcer, the Upper Peninsula Swimming & Diving Finals crowd gets to learn a little bit about each participant – from basic facts like who their parents are to why they like the upcoming race.
In the sprints, that can generate some predictable answers, like the many athletes who pointed out they like that event because it’s one of the shorter races.
Before the grueling 500-yard freestyle event, Marquette senior Grace Sobczak and freshman Olive Krueger brought a little levity and originality, both saying it was because they get to beat the other one.
That, however, is easier said than done for anybody.
Sobczak finished her high school career Saturday a perfect 4-for-4 in the event, and she also repeated as the 200-yard individual medley champion and was part of winning 200 and 400 free relay teams at Marquette Senior High School.
Krueger had a great day as well, pushing Sobczak more than anyone else. She was runner-up in a close finish to Sobczak in the 500 while winning the 100 freestyle and helping the 400 free relay to a win.
“They trained right next to each other,” Marquette coach Nathan McFarren said, “and fed off each other. Just incredible to watch. They one-upped each other and pushed each other up until the race every day.”
They led Marquette to its third-straight U.P. championship as they and their teammates dominated the nine-team field with 386.5 points; runner-up Gladstone had 258. Ishpeming Westwood took third with Kingsford fourth, Houghton fifth, Sault Ste. Marie sixth, Ishpeming/Negaunee seventh, Rudyard eighth and Manistique ninth.
Sobczak said her dad wasn’t a big fan of the pre-race joke, but she said everyone laughed. And in the end, the duo put on a great 500 race with Krueger coming on strong late.
“I had to push myself in that race a lot,” Sobczak said.
That’s her favorite event; she’s a distance swimmer and that’s the only true distance event. Winning that one Saturday and making it a perfect 4-for-4 meant a lot to her.
“It’s amazing, crazy,” Sobczak said. “I got up there, and I started crying because it’s so surreal.”
She was even more reflective at the end of the day.
“I’ve been swimming since I was 6 years old. This was my last race at this pool,” Sobczak said. “We’re three in a row, it’s pretty crazy. Last year I got four (U.P. titles), this year I got four, it’s pretty cool.”
Her coach said she’s quiet but a great leader. She “stepped it up this year with taking charge as a senior,” McFarren said.
And she has a teammate she can pass the baton to in Krueger. While Krueger finished less than two seconds after Sobczak, the next swimmer was more than 30 seconds behind Krueger.
“I knew it’d be close because we always race together, but I’m glad she won,” Krueger said.
Freshman Kaytlin Roell finished first in the 50 free as Marquette won its 28th U.P. Finals team title and fifth over the last six years.
Gladstone senior Adrianna Getzloff had a big day, finishing first in the 200 free and the 100 backstroke. She also helped the Braves to a first-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
Two of her teammates also had first-place finishes – sophomore Irene Neumeier won the 100 butterfly and junior Mary Hook took the 100 breaststroke. They were also on the 200 relay team along with Ava Getzloff.
Westwood sophomore Maggie Harvala won the diving competition with a score of 214.90.
McFarren made it a combined 17 Finals championships as coach for boys and girls for Marquette, tying Marquette’s Matt Williams for the meet record.
PHOTOS (Top) Marquette's Grace Sobczak swims to a victory in the 500-yard freestyle Saturday. (Middle) Kaytlin Roell swims the 100 breaststroke for Marquette. (Below) Gladstone's Mary Hooks swims to the win in the breaststroke. (Click for more from Jarvinen Photos.)