The stage was set last Saturday at the Livonia Recreation Center for an epic-proportion clash between two fiercely competitive archrivals for the Catholic League boys swimming championship.
On one side of the pool were the Warriors of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, invincible league champions for 26 years in a row.
Across from them were the Shamrocks of Novi Detroit Catholic Central, who last won the crown in 1991, when CC’s campus was located in Redford.
A month ago, the Shamrocks stunned the Warriors to win the Oakland County Championship, which Brother Rice had claimed the last six years, by a margin of three points.
A couple of weeks later, in a dual meet, Rice rebounded to nip CC by a point.
When I entered the pool area, I sensed an undercurrent that something was off kilter. Mike Venos surprised me when he said, nodding to the Shamrocks swimmers, “It’s theirs to lose” — this coming from a highly successful coach, 20 years at Brother Rice and six Division 1 state championships, four in the last four years.
On the other hand, CC’s coach, Jessica Stoddard, is brand new to the Catholic League, hired last fall to manage the swim team, but not new to coaching (for 13 years, coaching the girls at Walled Lake Northern), nor to the sport: seven times a high school All-American back home in Pennsylvania, six times selected an NCAA All-American and Olympic times qualifier at Michigan State and Clarion University.
Coaching the boys at CC is “incredible,” she said. “There’s so much talent and they work so hard.” When told what Venos said, suggesting maybe this was reverse psychology, she just smiled.
You probably have this story’s conclusion all figured out: yep, Catholic Central beat Brother Rice rather handily, 538.5 to 455. The third event proved to be the turning point when senior Jonathan Lee and sophomore August Thielking finished 1-2 in the 200-yard IM to convert a 10-point deficit into a 12-point advantage, which CC lengthened the rest of the way.
The Shamrocks had 13 first-, second- and third-place finishes compared to seven for Rice, which was weighed down by 16 finishes in places 5-8.
Both coaches were subdued after it was all over. Stoddard replied, “I guess so,” when asked if this is a high point in her career. Venos said, “We’ll have to start a new streak next year.”
Lee, who’s headed to Michigan State in the fall, also won the 100-yard breaststroke. He was one of four multiple-event winners. Warren De La Salle’s senior, Zach Milke, won the 100-yard free, 100-yard backstroke and was on the winning 400-yard free relay.
De La Salle senior Daniel Frederick was part of the same relay as Milke, but he had the distinction of breaking a record in the 500-yard freestyle he set last year, covering the twenty 25-yard laps in 4:35.44.
Coach Venos’ son, Jonah, a junior, won the 200-yard free and was the anchor on the winning 200-yard free relay.
De La Salle, who had won the Macomb County Championship for the sixth straight year, wound up third with 385 points. Detroit U-D Jesuit was fourth with 231.5 followed by Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood with 213.5.
A co-op team of two Ann Arbor schools, Fr. Gabriel Richard and Greenhills, scored 96.50. Allen Park Cabrini totaled 89 points.
The state swimming finals this Saturday (March 14) will close the high school winter sports schedule. Brother Rice (with nine qualifiers) in Division 1 and Cranbrook Kingswood (12 qualifiers) in Division 3 are both four-time defending champions.
Catholic Central, which has never made it to the state finals in its history, will have 15 qualifiers participating.
Contact Don Horkey at [email protected]