Brother Rice easily claims another boys swimming title

By James Hawkins, Special to The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — After setting five new school records in Friday's preliminaries, Birmingham Brother Rice was riding high heading into Saturday's Division 1 boys swimming and diving state finals at Eastern Michigan University's Michael H. Jones Natatorium.

And for the second straight year, no one could touch top-ranked Brother Rice as it ran away with the team championship and finished atop the podium with 358 points. Holland West Ottawa placed second (247) and Ann Arbor Pioneer a distant third (178.5).

It was Brother Rice's ninth state crown and first time winning consecutive titles since its five straight from 1994-98.

"(Preliminaries) just fueled everything for today. The excitement level today was set yesterday," Brother Rice coach Mike Venos said. "We had one of the old coaches come in last night and talk to them about the tradition and history of some of those guys whose names they took down. I think it fired them up. They understood really how special it was going to be."

Brother Rice seniors Mark Blinstrub, Gust Kouvaris and Jack Kennedy, and junior Drew Grady, set the tone for its title defense early, taking the day's first event — 200 medley relay — for the second straight year in 1:31.68, a second faster than last year's winning time (1:32.77).

Brother Rice continued to rack up the points, following up its win with a pair of second-place finishes by sophomore Rudy Aguilar in the 200 freestyle (1:39.57) and Blinstrub in the 200 individual medley (1:48.24).

"The medley relay was the kick-starter for the whole meet," Kouvaris said. "Everyone rallied around that and we've rallied around it the past three years."

Brother Rice pulled away with five second-place finishes in the next six events: Kouvaris in the 100 butterfly (49.15) and 100 backstroke (48.79), Blinstrub in the 100 freestyle (44.90), Aguilar in the 500 freestyle (4:32.26) and Grady in the 100 breaststroke (56.26).

Kouvaris, Aguilar, Blinstrub and Bobby Powrie sealed the deal by winning the 400 freestyle relay (3:02.58) for the third straight year.

"When the psych sheets came out, we thought it was going to be a close meet. In the end, we knew we were going to run away with it," said Kouvaris, who will swim at the University of Virginia. "To do it again is unbelievable because the past couple years our coaches compared us to teams that won national titles. One previous coach told us we're better than them, so to win it back-to-back and be compared to them is unbelievable."

Record-breaking day

As special at Brother Rice's repeat was, it was Detroit Catholic Central senior Jack Walsh and Lake Orion senior Devon Nowicki who stole the show.

Walsh (Stanford) set a state record in the 200 individual medley with a time of 1:47.26, which topped last year's mark of 1:47.47 set by Livonia Stevenson's Nick Arakelian. He also set a new Division 1 record in the 100 backstroke (48.48), breaking his own mark of 48.85 set in last year's state final.

"They definitely hurt a lot at the end. I gave it everything I had, but it felt good looking up at the board and seeing those times," Walsh said. "I definitely had a great group of teammates to push me every day. It feels great going out with them and motivating the younger kids on the team."

Nowicki (Oakland University) left his own mark by taking home two individual titles and leaving behind a new state record. He won the 100 butterfly (48.92) before closing out his high school career in grand fashion, posting a 53.59 in the 100 breaststroke to shatter the state record of 55.31 set by Saline's Josh Ehrman in 2013.

"I felt pretty good and confident going into both my events that I was going to come close to first and whatever happens, happens," Nowicki said. "To go out like that, it was pretty cool to set it (breaststroke record). I was really going for the national high school record, which is 53.06. I came short but coming short to a national record isn't that bad."

Walsh and Nowicki were also named the Division 1 swimmers of the year at the end of the meet.

'One of the best feelings'

In other individual events, two more records were rewritten by Holland West Ottawa senior Tabahn Afrik and Rockford junior Jake Herremans.

Afrik (Notre Dame) set a new Division 1 record in the 50 freestyle, despite trailing heading into the turn with a time of 20.26, besting his own mark of 20.27 set last year. Afrik also repeated in the 100 freestyle (44.06).

"(Ann Arbor Pioneer's Will) Brenner had me the majority of the (50 free) race and I ended up out-swimming him and out-touching him in the end," Afrik said. "The last shebang that you have as a senior in any sport you do is one of the best feelings in the world. Words just can't describe it."

Herremans defended his one-meter diving title with an astounding 528.45 points, shattering the Division 1 record of 494.40 points set by Zeeland East's Tyler Keelean in 2011 and improving upon his total of 458 from last year.

Ann Arbor Pioneer's Noah Frassrand, Jiaming Shen, Andrew Heise and Kai Williams broke Saline's 2013 Division 1 record of 1:23.92 in the 200 freestyle relay with a time of 1:23.68, while Bridgman Co-Op junior Trayton Saladin took home the title in the 500 freestyle (4:30.99).