Wayland's Wolf Eager to Build on Historic Freshman Finals Performance

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

November 16, 2023

WAYLAND – Laney Wolf made a giant splash last year in her debut at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Swimming & Diving Finals.

West MichiganAs a freshman, the Wayland standout won individual titles in the 50 and 100-yard freestyles – becoming the first swimmer in school history to earn a Finals championship while putting the rest of the state on notice that she will be around to contend for more over the next three years.

“Last year was a great experience, especially being able to win in the 50 and 100 free,” Wolf said. “It was really exciting, especially with my teammates and coaches cheering me on.

“I've done a lot of club swimming, but it was just a different atmosphere for high school because it was a big state meet. It was important.”

Wolf entered her first Finals with zero expectations.

“I didn’t expect to win,” she said. “I swam well in the preliminaries, and I was first. Then in the finals, I just gave it all I had and ended up with the wins.”

Wayland swimming & diving coach Seth Beat also had no idea what to expect from his talented young swimmer.

“When she came in, I knew she was going to score well in our conference and be a top competitor,” Beat said. “And then tracking her progress, it was exciting to see her growing and climbing the ranks at the state level.”

The opportunity to qualify for her Finals was satisfying enough.

“I was just happy for her to go to state with her being ranked in the top eight in her individual races, and for her to finish first in those was just mind-blowing,” Beat said. “We were all proud of her, and it was just go and swim as hard as you can and be happy with the outcome.

Wolf is awarded with her 100 freestyle championship at last season’s LPD3 Finals. “And I think we will have the same mindset this year. Let's just go, be focused and do what you can. Be mentally and physically ready and just give it her all.”

Wolf will try to duplicate last year’s awe-inspiring effort when she competes in this weekend’s Finals at Oakland University. She has the fourth-fastest LPD3 qualifying times in both of her signature events (24.54 in the 50 and 53.55 in the 100).

“I'm really excited about the 50 free this year, and I think I have a really good shot at that event,” Wolf said. “I know there is a lot more competition than there was last year, but I'm still going to try my best and give it everything I have.”

Wolf has reason for optimism after recording a personal best in the 50 during practice.

“I’ve been very happy with how I’ve swam this season,” she said. “I had 24 (seconds) during the hard week of practice, which was huge for me to be able to do that.”

Beat has witnessed firsthand Wolf’s climb to early success at the high school level. He first met her when she was 6 years old while taking part in the Wayland AquatiCATS Swim Program.

“She has a killer instinct and is very competitive,” Beat said. “She comes from a family of athletes.”

That family of athletes includes two brothers and an older sister, who’s also on the team, and who constantly push each other and strive for excellence. Laney also played basketball and ran track as a freshman.

“I’ve coached them all in swimming and taught them in the classroom, and they just set high goals and are extremely determined to meet those goals,” Beat said. “They will work out in the weight room, eat right, swim right and will train seven days a week.

“They will do what they need to do in order to make sure they achieve their goals. It’s in their genes and makeup. They put their best foot forward to be the best they can be.”

Wolf’s work ethic, perseverance and positive attitude provide her with the necessary motivation to excel. 

“I never give up, and I always try my best at practice,” Wolf said. “I do club swimming over the summer, and I'm always putting in the work to do the best I can.

“When I’m getting ready for my races, I don't think about my competition. I just picture the event before I swim it, and I'm trying to perfect everything in my head before I go into that event and get into a good head space.”

Wolf isn’t feeling any pressure to repeat this weekend.

“I think no matter how I do, I will be happy with how it turns out,” Wolf said. “No matter what, it will be a good end to the season.”

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) Wayland’s Laney Wolf swims one of her races; she’s among the state’s elite sprinters. (Middle) Wolf is awarded with her 100 freestyle championship at last season’s LPD3 Finals. (Photos courtesy of the Wayland 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.)