Practice Makes Champion for Saline

November 22, 2014

By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half 

YPSILANTI – Saline swimming coach Todd Brunty often ends practice the same way, setting up a relay with the atmosphere of a race that would decide the outcome of a meet.

Practice became reality Saturday afternoon at the Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. 

But this time, the final race – the 400-yard freestyle relay - didn’t decide a normal meet; it decided the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 swimming and diving championship.

“Every single time we finish practice, Todd always says, ‘Swim like it’s coming down to the last relay,’ and that’s exactly what we did,” said Saline senior Alex McPherson, who swam the second leg on the relay as Saline won it in 3 minutes, 28.13 seconds. 

Farmington Hills Mercy, which led the meet by a half-point coming into the final event, was second in the relay in 3:31.26. Saline won the championship by a margin of 267.5-262.

Junior Amelia Armstrong-Grant swam the first leg for Saline, followed by McPherson, junior Allison Eppinga and freshman Lizzy Spears. 

Brunty said he had no reservations about having a freshman swim the last leg in such an important race.

“She had a tough meet. It was her first year here, but we stuck with her,” he said of Spears. “She got a baptism by fire right there. 

“She did a job, and that’s part of this team. We have expectations here, and no matter who you are, at any given time you have to be willing to swim.”

The girls made a point to say they were swimming more for each other than for themselves. 

“When I was on the blocks, I just thought, ‘This is it. Swim for them, not for yourself,’” McPherson said. “I love these girls more than anything, and I just wanted to win for them. I consider all of those girls my sisters, and I’m not going to let down my family.”

McPherson was the only senior on the relay, and Spears – the freshman who swam the last leg – said winning for McPherson was important. 

“I had to do it for Alex because it’s her senior year, and I had to do it for the rest of the team,” she said. “It’s such an honor to swim the last leg. All I was thinking was that I had to be the first one to the wall, and the team was counting on that.” 

Saline had roughly a 3-second lead when Spears entered the water for her final leg, and the winning margin was roughly 3 seconds.

“I told them all I needed was a lead,” she said.

It was the third MHSAA team championship for Saline, and like the two previous ones, it came without an individual champion on the swimming side. 

However, Saline did have a champion in diving, and it dominated the event with four divers finishing among the top 15. Sophomore Amy Stevens defended her title and won with 488.20 points – an LP Division 1 Final record – while Camryn McPherson was second, Miranda Eberle seventh and Emmi Ruela 15th.

Stevens had roughly a 10-point lead over McPherson after the semifinal and maintained that edge throughout the final. McPherson had won the Regional title by 19 points. 

“You always want your teammates to do good, but you don’t want them to do better than you,” Stevens said. “It’s great competing with them because it’s a fun environment, and when you are having fun you always dive well.”

Brunty made a point to single out the divers for their contribution to the overall championship. 

“The divers were paramount to our win,” he said, pointing to the trophy. “It does say swimming and diving, and a lot of people think it’s something else, but we’re going to make sure people understand that we are a program that believes in everything.

“We support diving. A lot of coaches sometimes forget how important it can be, but I think we proved today that diving is an integral part of the sport. It is a swimming and diving state championship, and we are the state champs.” 

Armstrong-Grant finished second in the 200 freestyle and third in the 100 freestyle, while McPherson was runner-up in the 500 freestyle and fifth in the 200 freestyle. Eppinga also tied for fifth in the 100 freestyle and took sixth in the 100 backstroke.

Saline also was third in both the 200 medley relay and the 200 freestyle relay, and the meet took a dramatic turn in the latter. Farmington Hills Mercy was disqualified when its leadoff swimmer moved in the blocks before the race began. The Marlins finished third but had to forfeit their 32 points from that event. 

“Everybody drops the ball every now and then,” Mercy coach Shannon Dunworth said. “Our girl flinched on the blocks. You have to remain motionless, and she twitched.

“The kids did marvelous. I think they’ve got their heads up, and my hat’s off to Saline for sure.” 

Mercy won the meet-opening 200 medley relay in 1:45 with Katie Minnich, Maddie Loniewski, Alaina Skellett and Roxanne Griffore making up the team. Minnich, a freshman, later won the 100 backstroke in 55.06 for Mercy’s only individual championship.

The meet also was highlighted by record-breaking efforts by two Waterford swimmers who successfully defended their 2013 championships. 

Senior Miranda Tucker, who plans to swim at Indiana University next year, broke her all-division record set last year in the 200 IM (1:59.14). She also broke her all-division record in the 100 breaststroke in the prelims on Friday (1:00.58) and again in the final (1:00.56).

Tucker admitted she was a little disappointed that she was not able to take her breaststroke time under 1 minute. 

“I was pretty mad that I didn’t break that minute barrier that I’ve been hoping for all this time,” she said. “But I got to thinking it over. I’m just enjoying myself. I’m going all out to see what I can do. There’s always another chance.

“I felt like I could have done better, but I’ll take what I can get. I gave it my all.” 

Waterford senior Maddie Wright closed out her high school career with her seventh and eighth Finals championships. She repeated in the 200 freestyle in 1:49.30 and had to come from behind to edge Morgan Bullock of Zeeland in the 100 butterfly with a time of 54.51.

“Morgan has incredible underwaters, and she was just beating me on all of those,” Wright said. “For a while, I was thinking maybe it’s someone else’s turn to be the champion, and then on the last turn I just saw her and said, ‘I know I can make that up. I know I can do it.’ It was very close. 

“I loved every second of it.”

Another successful defense was turned in by Northville sophomore Laura Westphal in the 500 freestyle. She won in 4:54.46, less than a second ahead of Saline’s Alex McPherson. 

“It was really fun,” Westphal said. “I enjoyed it. I was a little concerned as they were gaining on me the last bit. I think we all went faster because we had better competition. I’m glad how it turned out.”

Grand Blanc sophomore Emma Curtis took the 50 freestyle in exciting fashion as she out-touched Erin Hudson of Rockford to win by one hundredth of a second in 23.60. 

“Honestly, I didn’t know if I had won,” Curtis said. “I had no idea. As it was getting close to the end, I took a breath and saw her. She was right next to me, so I knew it could have went either way.”

Hudson was part of Rockford’s winning 200 freestyle relay team that finished in 1:35.88. Other members of that relay were Meegan Snyman, Dakota Noble and Peyton Rayburn. 

Brighton sophomore Taylor Seaman won the 100 freestyle in 51.16, while Rockford won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:35.88.

But the day belonged to Saline. 

“I’m just proud of the girls and the resolve they showed throughout the day,” Brunty said. “We didn’t swim our best, but we swam good enough to be state champs, so we’ll take it.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Saline's Amy Stevens performs a dive en route to repeating as champion of the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final on Saturday. (Middle) A Saline swimmer competes for the eventual team champion at Eastern Michigan University. (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.)