By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
As one of Michigan’s top high school swimming sprinters, Fenton senior Gabbi Haaraoja no doubt was in strong shape to start this summer.
But she and her Tigers teammates made sure to prepare for this month’s preseason “survival trip” with plenty of miles running and yards swimming a local lake.
All that training paid off during three days and two nights at Pigeon River Country State Forest near Vanderbilt as the team prepared for last week’s first day of practice and a run at a 10th-consecutive league championship.
And the Tigers have kicked off the title effort by being named winners of the MHSAA’s inaugural Prep Rally, a contest that was part of the MHSAA’s PLAY (Preparation Lasts All Year) initiative to encourage athletes to remain active during the offseason so they are prepared physically and acclimated to warm weather when practice begins in the fall.
“Being out in nature, it’s really pretty there. You appreciate it more,” Haaraoja said, then adding some tongue-in-cheek. “It definitely was fun. But it was a lot more work than what we were used to. I think I’m actually glad I’m a senior.”
Athletes from Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett and Beal City also were finalists. Participating athletes from Fenton’s girls swimming and diving team will receive tickets to an MHSAA Final of their choice, where they will be recognized for their achievement.
Fenton has taken similar training trips heading into all 14 seasons under coach Brad Jones. Others have included activities like canoeing and dune climbing, The last four years, the team journeyed to El Cortez Beach Resort in Oscoda for some time on Lake Huron together before practice began.
This season’s seniors asked to do something new. And it was a new experience for many in more ways than one.
The team left Aug. 11 and returned home two days later in time for the first day of practice. Jones took north 24 athletes, and some had never camped or slept outside. Six seniors made their fourth preseason trip with the team – but for 12 freshmen, this was their first experience as high schoolers.
That team demographic made this summer’s trip especially important for bonding. But it also had a desired effect physically – both heading into this fall and in setting preparation expectations for the future.
Pigeon River Country has 67 miles of trails, and the team hiked four or more miles between camp sites each day – making this the most physically taxing of the trips any of the Tigers had been on to start swimming and diving season.
“We were very up front that in August we’re taking this trip, and you need to be able to go 6-7 miles walking. We put that out there early on,” Jones said. “We have pretty good girls doing what they’re needing to do outside of (swimming) training. (But) we were pretty up front that you don’t put your backpack on and your hiking shoes on for the first time in August.”
Haaraoja said the hikes made it obvious quickly who had prepped during the summer and who needed to catch up. Seniors rotated throughout the line of teammates, so those who began a hike leading the group finished at the back with those working harder to keep in step.
Once in the woods, Jones split his athletes into four teams for a series of challenges that included building their own fires, cooking their own meals (they didn’t receive food until the fire was started) and breaking camp the next day. One trail ran past a small lake, and the athletes swam across it in a relay to earn more points. Another relay-type event involved filling buckets with water.
The challenge champions received ice cream.
“By the time we get home, everybody knows everybody else,” Jones said. “Once we get into training, the top girls are in one lane and the beginners are in another. So there’s not a lot of interaction. But this gives the whole team a chance to get to know each other.”
That’s the part Haaraoja said she’ll remember most fondly, while also appreciating the edge the added physical activity of the summer prep and trip should give the team this fall and in years to come.
“For the underclassmen, they realized where they should be at the beginning of the season next year so they don’t come into it completely out of shape,” Haaraoja said. “It helped our underclassmen learn what our goals were. They know what they’re working for.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Fenton's girls swimming and diving athletes take a moment for a photo during their three-day "survival trip." (Middle) The Tigers take a quick lunch break during a hike at Pigeon River Country State Forest. (Below) The Fenton athletes pose for one more photo wearing their "survivor" T-shirts. (Photos courtesy of Fenton coach Brad Jones.)
The Representative Council of the Michigan High School Athletic Association began examining several topics during its Fall Meeting, Dec. 1 in East Lansing – including start and end dates of the winter calendar, possible new transfer rule exceptions and emerging sports – that will shape its work during the winter and spring meetings of this 2023-24 school year.
Generally, the Council takes only a few actions during its Fall Meeting, with topics often introduced for additional consideration and action during its meetings in March and May. The Council did take three actions this time as part of larger conversations expected to continue over the next six months.
The Council joined staff discussion on the start and end dates of winter seasons and the possibility of moving up both, which was among topics surveyed as part of the Update Meeting poll completed by administrators during the MHSAA’s annual presentations across the state this fall. Staff will prepare a recommendation for Council to review at a future meeting regarding the 2025-26 school year and beyond.
MHSAA staff also provided a variety of transfer rule issues encountered over the last year, and Council discussed the possibility of adding transfer rule exceptions related to military transfer families, fulltime school employee transfers and students returning from a sports academy or prep school and seeking immediate eligibility. The Council did adopt a change for multi-high school districts (with at least three high schools) that include both boundary and non-boundary schools that more clearly defined where students at those schools have immediate eligibility.
The Council also discussed possible new and emerging sports, including proposals for MHSAA sponsorship received by the water polo and field hockey governing bodies and an anticipated proposal to add boys volleyball to the MHSAA Tournament lineup.
Several more conversations regarded MHSAA postseasons:
- The Council reviewed the work of the Football Task Force and considered a staff recommendation to have the Football Committee in January discuss possibly capping enrollment of Division 8 11-player schools at 250 students to incentivize schools within that group to play 11-player instead of switching to 8-player.
- MHSAA staff have identified four areas requiring financial increases – MHSAA Tournament officials fees, host schools compensations, manager honorariums and team reimbursements for Finals participants – and the Council discussed the importance of including these when the MHSAA Audit & Finance Committee meets in February to begin the 2024-25 budgetary process.
- The Council also discussed recommendations from the MHSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee addressing possible requirements of emergency action plans and AEDs at MHSAA Tournament sites.
The Fall Meeting saw the appointment of Wyoming Godfrey-Lee Schools superintendent Arnetta Thompson and Freeland Middle School principal Jennifer Thunberg to two-year terms to the 19-person Council, the first terms for both. The Council also reelected Scott Grimes, superintendent for Grand Haven Area Public Schools, as its president; Brighton High School athletic director John Thompson as its vice president, and Vic Michaels, director of physical education and athletics for the Archdiocese of Detroit, as secretary-treasurer.
The Representative Council is the legislative body of the MHSAA. All but five members are elected by member schools. Four members are appointed by the Council to facilitate representation of females and minorities, and the 19th position is occupied by the Superintendent of Public Instruction or designee.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.4 million spectators each year.