Tested West Ottawa Prepped for Finals

November 14, 2018

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 [email protected] 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.)

East Grand Rapids' Briggs to Receive Deserved Spotlight for Half-Century of Swim

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)