Metro Detroit high school swimming notebook: Brother Rice not short on talent

Brandon Rothenberg
Special to The Detroit News

Out of 12 swimmers on Mike Venos’ team at Birmingham Brother Rice, four of them have competed all four years. That lack of “full-time” experience isn’t something that stands in the way of Brother Rice as it begins its season.

Iit’s not anything that worries Venos.

“The last time we were this small, two years later we went on a run and won five state championships in a row ... things look pretty good,” Venos said.

Birmingham Brother Rice's Conner Kulka during swim practice at Waterford Kettering High School in Waterford Township, Michigan on January 17, 2022.

Conner Kulka is one of those four-year athletes, and he’s a captain this year. He’s been one of the swimmers who Venos can lean on both inside and outside the pool.

“Conner is one of the best leaders I’ve had in this program, he really works his tail off,” Venos said. “He’s not afraid to call a kid out, but he’s more likely to give a kid praise.”

Kulka is already looking good. He won both the 50 and 100 free in his first meet and earned state cuts in those events against Warren De La Salle and Allen Park Cabrini. He finished second at states last year in the 100 free with a time of 45.71.

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Conner’s brother, Andrew has always been a summer swimmer. This will be his first time participating in a school season. Venos is excited to see what he can do with more training. Andrew finished third in the 50 free with a time of 24.57 and finished second in the 100-yard breast with a time of 1:08.97.

While the roster might be small, it packs a punch with talent and experience. Edward St. Amour is the only diver, but he can handle double-duty as a swimmer as well. In Brother Rice's first meet, he won the 1M dive with a score of 219.85, while finishing third in the 100 back with a time of 1:11.63.

“He’s capable of doing just about anything,” Venos said. “With a smaller team, it’s really nice to have a kid who’s so personable and talented and you can plug him in anywhere.”

The remainder of Venos’ team is made up of swimmers from all sorts of backgrounds and experience. Junior Robbie Higgins transferred from U-D Jesuit. He’s a football player and a summer swimmer. Venos says he’s been a pleasant surprise. Senior Aidan Devine only started swimming for Brother Rice last year, and he scored at last year’s state meet. Brooks Raferty is one of just two freshmen on the squad. He hasn’t swam in a few years, but really wants to compete.

Birmingham Brother Rice's Conner Kulka during swim practice at Waterford Kettering High School in Waterford Township, Michigan on January 17, 2022.

Venos believes that a small team can actually be a good thing. All that hard work really comes down to the state meet.

“All of your training is geared for the final few days. I want these guys to work on things that will make them faster,” Venos said. “You’ll swim your fastest with 16 weeks on you rather than in the middle of the season.”

Double duty at Seaholm

Karl Hodgson is in his first year of coaching the boys swim and dive team at Birmingham Seaholm.

He’s also the coach of the Seaholm girls swim and dive team, and they’re fresh off a Division 2 state championship, his third in a row.

The boys swim and dive team at Seaholm is coming off a state championship too, and they’ve won it three times since 2014. The odds of repeating as champions won’t come easy, as Hodgson has lost roughly 70% of last year’s winning team to graduation.

There are plenty of returning kids from last year’s squad, who are hungry to compete.

“A lot of these guys were here on this team last year, they bring the experience,” Hodgson said. “To know what’s expected and what it takes at that level is a big part.”

Hodgson says the way to be successful at the state meet is to have depth. Multiple guys need to be able to swim multiple events, and that’s the case for their core group of seniors and captains. Cami Wilson, Patrick Branch and Owen O’Neill continue to make a splash as Seaholm is 3-0 on the season.

In its meet against Rochester Hills Stoney Creek and Grosse Pointe North, Branch won the 100 breast with a time of 1:02.49. He and O’Neill helped Seaholm win their 400-yard freestyle relay.

Junior Scott Hassett and O’Neill finished in the top two, respectively, for the 200-yard freestyle. Wilson won the 200-yard IM by more than three seconds with a time of 2:03.18.

There was one performance though that stood out far from the rest, and that came from Grayson Davis in the 1M dive with a score of 304.05.

“I’ve never seen a diver get over 300 points in a dual meet; he’s extremely talented,” Hodgson said.

Seaholm is off to a good start, and with Hodgson’s experience, a chance to repeat as state champions isn’t so far-fetched.

Brandon Rothenberg is a freelance writer.