By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
HOLLAND – The West Ottawa girls swimming & diving team always is prepared when postseason time comes around.
The rigors of competing in a competitive Ottawa-Kent Conference Red have their benefits.
West Ottawa recently claimed an outright O-K Red title with a victory at the final conference meet. The Panthers ousted a trio of top-10 Division 1 teams, including runner-up Rockford, en route to the victory.
The Panthers will enter this weekend’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Eastern Michigan University tied for the No. 10 spot in the final rankings with league rivals Hudsonville and Grand Haven, and just behind the No. 8 Rams.
“We’re very blessed to swim in a very talented conference,” said West Ottawa coach Steve Bowyer, who has guided the program since 2006.
“Rockford, Hudsonville and Grand Haven are all ranked in the top 10, and to win the O-K Red you need an incredible amount of depth. That’s one thing our team had this year.”
Senior Ayisha Afrik, one of West Ottawa’s top performers, said the O-K Red provides a grueling test.
“I think the O-K Red is super competitive,” she said. “The east side of the state has a lot of fast swimmers, but I definitely think the O-K Red has some pretty fast swimmers, too. It’s nice to have that there during the conference dual season because you understand the competition and what you are in for when state rolls around.”
It was the second straight O-K Red championship for the program. The Panthers also swept the league dual meets.
“That was a great time, and it was kind of a surprise,” Afrik said. “We knew some of the teams were pretty evenly matched, but after prelims we felt pretty secure – and to win it twice in a row out of my four years was really great.”
The Panthers hope to carry the momentum from their conference success into this weekend’s Finals. They will send 11 athletes – 10 swimmers and a diver – and have aspirations of finishing among the top 10.
West Ottawa finished eighth in 2017, but just a point out of seventh and 29 out of fifth.
“Coming into the meet, our goal as a program each year is to try and be in the top 10,” Bowyer said. “We feel like if we can consistently be a top-10 team at the Division 1 meet, then we’re doing some good things and we’re moving in the right direction.
“We know that we have our work cut out for us because there are a lot of great teams this year and a lot of fast relays. The key to finishing in the top 10 is to score three relays, and that’s our goal.”
West Ottawa won the LP Division 1 title in 2012 and has placed among the top 10 consistently over the past decade.
Bowyer attributes the team’s ability to maintain consistency at the Finals to a dedicated group.
“We have a lot of kids who are very committed to the sport, and we’ve been fortunate to have a number of kids come through the program who have been committed to swimming in-season and out of season,” Bowyer said. “And you get a few of those coming through, and then they pull a few kids along with them and it’s been really cool to see the program grow the last 10 years.”
Afrik will be the catalyst this weekend and has the potential to finish among the top 10 in the 50 and 100-yard freestyles. She finished eighth in the 50 and 14th in the 100, and helped two relays to fifth-place finishes last season.
“Hopefully we can get some individual PRs (personal records) and get top eight in two of our relays,” Afrik said. “I would like to get the school record individually, and that would be nice to have. I just want to have a great last meet with my team.”
Sophomore Lilly Brandt is expected to swim well in the 200 and 500 freestyles, while senior Kasey Westenbroek is strong in the 100 backstroke. Brandt placed 13th in the 200 and 15th in the 100 last season, while Westenbroek just missed qualifying for the championship heats in backstroke.
Junior Ryann Harper will attempt to help her team in the diving portion of the meet after also competing at the Finals as a sophomore.
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) West Ottawa’s Ayisha Afrik will look to finish her high school career with another strong performance at the MHSAA Finals. (Middle) Ryann Harper performs a dive during competition. (Photos courtesy of the Holland West Ottawa athletic department.)
The addition of two games to basketball regular-season schedules and a new series of wrestling weight classes are likely the most noticeable Winter 2022-23 changes as an estimated 65,000 athletes statewide take part in 13 sports for which the Michigan High School Athletic Association sponsors postseason tournaments.
Girls gymnastics and boys ice hockey teams were able to begin practice Oct. 31, with the rest of those sports beginning in November – including also girls and boys basketball, girls and boys bowling, girls competitive cheer, girls and boys skiing, Upper Peninsula girls and boys and Lower Peninsula boys swimming & diving, and girls and boys wrestling.
A variety of changes are in effect for winter sports this season, including a several that will be noteworthy and noticeable to teams and spectators alike.
Basketball remains the most-participated winter sport for MHSAA member schools with 33,000 athletes taking part last season, and for the first time, basketball teams may play up to 22 regular-season games. This increase from the previous 20-game schedule allows more games for teams at every high school level – varsity, junior varsity and freshman.
Another significant change has been made in wrestling, as the majority of boys wrestling weight classes have been adjusted for this season in anticipation of a national change coming in 2023-24. The updated boys weight classes are 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 144, 150, 157, 165, 175, 190, 215 and 285 pounds. Only 215 and 285 remain from the previous lineup. There is also one change to girls weight classes, with the 255 class replaced by 235 to also align with national high school standards.
A series of notable changes will affect how competition takes place at the MHSAA Tournament levels. In hockey, in addition to a new classification process that spread cooperative and single-school programs evenly throughout the three playoff divisions, the MHSAA Tournament will employ two changes. The Michigan Power Ratings (MPR) will be used to seed the entire Regional round, not just the top two teams, and prior to the start of Semifinals, a seeding committee will reseed the remaining four teams in each division with the top seed in each then facing the No. 4 seed, and the No. 2 seed facing No. 3.
Bowling also will see an MHSAA Tournament change, as the Team Regional format will mirror the long-standing Team Final with teams playing eight Baker games and two regular games at both levels. And as also applied during the fall girls season, there is a new qualification process for divers seeking to advance to Lower Peninsula Boys Swimming & Diving Finals. In each of the three divisions, each Regional will be guaranteed 10 qualifiers for the Finals, with six more “floating” qualifier entries to be distributed to the Regionals that have one of the previous year’s top six returning Finals divers in their fields. If a team changes division from the previous season, any floating top-six spots are added to the six already allowed in the school’s new division.
A gymnastics rules change provides an opportunity for additional scoring during the floor exercise. A dance passage requirement was added in place of the former dance series requirement to encourage creativity and a more artistic use of dance. The dance passage requires gymnasts to include two Group 1 elements – one a leap with legs in cross or side split position, the other a superior element.
In competitive cheer, the penalty for going over the time limit in each round was adjusted to one penalty point for every second over the time limit, not to exceed 15 points. The new time limit rule is more lenient than the past penalty, which subtracted points based on ranges of time over the limit.
The 2022-23 Winter campaign culminates with postseason tournaments, as the championship schedule begins with the Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Swimming & Diving Finals on Feb. 18 and wraps up with the Boys Basketball Finals on March 25. Here is a complete list of winter tournament dates:
Districts – March 6, 8, 10
Regionals – March 13, 15
Quarterfinals – March 21
Semifinals – March 23-24
Finals – March 25
Districts – Feb. 27, March 1, 3
Regionals – March 7, 9
Quarterfinals – March 14
Semifinals – March 16-17
Finals – March 18
Regionals – Feb. 24-25
Finals – March 3-4
District – Feb. 17-18
Regionals – Feb. 25
Finals – March 2-3
Regionals – March 4
Finals – March 10-11
Regionals – Feb. 20-March 1
Quarterfinals – March 4
Semifinals – March 9-10
Finals – March 11
Regionals – Feb. 13-17
Finals – Feb. 27
Swimming & Diving
Upper Peninsula Girls/Boys Finals – Feb. 18
Lower Peninsula Boys Diving Regionals – March 2
Lower Peninsula Boys Finals – March 10-11
Wrestling – Team
Districts – Feb. 8-9
Regionals – Feb. 15
Finals – Feb. 24-25
Wrestling – Individual
Districts – Feb. 11
Regionals – Feb. 18
Finals – March 3-4
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 1.3 million spectators each year.