Pioneer Seniors Leave Legacy with 2nd-Straight Finals Win

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 20, 2021

HOLLAND – Ann Arbor Pioneer boasts one of the deepest traditions in MHSAA girls swimming & diving history.

It goes back to the days of legendary coach Dennis Hill, who guided the Pioneers to their first state title in 1979 and retired with 16 championships in Lower Peninsula Class A or Division 1.

The latest wave of talent was determined to carry on that tradition and leave its mark. Led by a strong group of seven seniors, Pioneer overwhelmed the competition in capturing a second-straight Division 1 title Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center.

The Pioneers claimed first place in five of 12 events, including all three relays, and showed off their superior depth in a runaway victory. They totaled a whopping 405.5 points to leave the rest of the pack far behind. Saline was runner-up with 247 points, followed by Brighton in third place with 217.5.

“We just had to take care of ourselves all season,” Pioneer sixth-year coach Stefanie Kerska said. “As nice as it may seem to be out so far in front, we made it a point to not get complacent, to not cut corners and, like I said, to not take our foot off the gas. 

“So, that was really the challenge of the year, to just stay motivated, still being as dominant as we were this year.”

Last season, Pioneer captured the 17th Finals championship in program history in similarly dominant fashion. Pioneer racked up 368 points, ahead of Farmington Hills Mercy (184), which edged the Pioneers by only half a point for the 2019 Division 1 title.

Last year, and especially this weekend, the Pioneers were essentially competing against themselves. In five events, they had two top-six finishers, and three in another event.

Division 1 SwimmingAmong the 19 all-state finishes (top eight in each event) for Pioneer, 15 placed in the top four of their respective races. 

“It means everything. Last year was our first time winning a state championship in our four years,” Pioneer senior Vivian VanRenterghem said. “Obviously, with COVID, the experience was a little bit different – we didn’t get to do it until January. 

“So, getting to do it here – prelims, finals, the real deal – definitely meant more, and I think to come out the other end of last year was everything for us.”

Senior Lily Cramer led the way for Pioneer with a first-place finish in the 200-yard free (1:48.95), plus she swam legs on winning 200 free relay and 400 free relay teams and took second in the 100 breaststroke. Sophomore Stella Chapman won the 200 IM (2:01.98), swam legs on first-place 200 medley relay and 400 relay teams, and placed second in the 100 backstroke.

VanRenterghem and senior Holly Pringle both swam legs on the Pioneers’ winning 200 free relay and 400 free relay teams. Senior Edwina Jalet swam a leg on the Pioneers’ first-place 200 medley relay, while senior Amelia Weyhing and junior Sophia Guo swam as part of the victorious 200 free relay.

Cramer said that the intrasquad competition pushes everybody to be better.

“Everyone wants to do well, and I think that makes everybody a little nervous, but also we knew what we were able to do and we were able to execute that to the best of our ability,” Cramer said.

“We do everything together, so to be able to win together is a really good feeling.”

Plymouth senior Brady Kendall was the lone two-event individual winner for the two-day competition. She swam to first place in the 50 free in 22.63 seconds and captured first in the 100 butterfly in 53.35.

Rockford sophomore Megan Jolly finished at the top in 1-meter diving with 419.20 points. Grand Haven sophomore Rosalee Springer captured first in the 100 free (50.55). Brighton junior Victoria Schreiber was first in the 500 free (4:57.27). Middleville Thornapple Kellogg senior Abby Marcukaitis took the top honor in the 100 backstroke (55.07). Livonia Stevenson junior McKenzie Siroky was first in the 100 breaststroke (1:00.85).

In addition to the seven seniors, Pioneer’s team featured two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen.

“I’ve got a lot of seniors, and luckily they’ve been able to really leave their mark on this team over the last few years, and so those underclassmen sort of know what the expectations and requirements are to continue this,” Kerska said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge from here on out. Those seven seniors have really built this program back up.”

Kerska wanted the senior group to leave a legacy, and those seven swimmers did just that. They carried on the rich Pioneer tradition and started another Finals-title string with their back-to-back achievement.

The Pioneers won four Class A championships in a row under Hill from 1989-92, and nine straight for the Hall of Fame coach from 2000-08. They also collected titles in 1985 and 1987.

Pioneer’s seniors did not lose a single dual meet in their high school careers, and five of them are headed to swim at the Division I collegiate level.

VanRenterghem and Cramer have been swimming together since fourth grade.

“This sport is a lot of work, but it’s always been worth it,” VanRenterghem said. “I think a lot of us have a really exciting next four years, but I think we’re never going to forget where we came from and I’ll always be cheering for Pioneer.”

Said Cramer: “We started this together and we ended this together, and I think it’s a really good way to go out.”

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PHOTOS by High School Sports Scene.

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.)