Stef Kerska has seen a lot of fantastic athletes swim through her prestigious program as head coach at Pioneer High School.
Many arrive already in perfect stride with swimmers four years older like a number of recent talented freshman to earn spots on the varsity roster. Others use hard work and countless hours in the water to improve their skills and eventually start helping their team rack up points, wins, league titles and even state championships.
Kerska can spot talent, promise and potential so when she calls one of her swimmers “special,” it’s the highest compliment on the board. She’s had more than a few “special” athletes over the last few years and Quoia Sam certainly makes the list.
“Quoia has been a tremendous leader for this team over the past four years,” says Kerska of the talented senior who has spent her high school career in the pool working hard, getting better and helping Pioneer rack up those points. “She quietly and competently goes about her business of preparation and execution and she still has enough left to lead this team of highly competitive personalities. She is a coach’s dream during close meets because she is so low maintenance and steady as a rock.”
Sam recently signed a letter of intent to swim at Eastern Michigan University and the Eagles certainly landed a big fish.
“Her best years are still ahead of her,” Kerska says. “As successful as Quoia has been for this team she will thrive at the collegiate level. Eastern Michigan is getting the full package. I’m glad we will be able to see her shine on the next stage.”
Leadership is something Sam takes seriously, both in and out of the water. She is building and creating character traits that will serve her well not only at the next level but throughout life.
“I had the opportunity to be part of a group known as PPI or Positive Peer Influence who help students around school with personal struggles,” Sam says. “I am currently in a group called Restorative Justice, similar to PPI. The group is known to assist in conflicts between people and help resolve issues.
“I am also very excited to be captain of Pioneer’s swim team. I want this to be one of the most fun, hard-working and memorable seasons for my team.”
It’s already been a pretty memorable season for the Pioneers, who went undefeated in dual-meets, won the SEC and head into the state finals on Nov. 20-21 at Hudsonville as one of the favorites to win it all. Of course, they came close last year, finishing second by just one point to Farmington Hills Mercy. The Pioneers handled the whole thing as impressively as they perform in the water.
“State finals was one of the most exciting times I’ve ever encountered in my swimming career,” Sam said. “I’m really grateful I got to share the experience with my teammates and coaches. Feeling the love and support from the stands was amazing! Swimming and cheering with my teammates was one of the biggest highlights for me.”
Sam said they had one goal – to perform to the best of their individual and collective abilities. Mission accomplished.
“We wanted to make ourselves and each other proud,” she said. “Our team encouraged one another to push ourselves to our utmost potential, and I believe we did that phenomenally. We worked hard and grinded out the season until the very end, and it definitely presented itself at states. Holding up that second place trophy with the rest of my teammates was very significant to me personally, because I believe we took advantage of every opportunity present and finished second place with much grit. States couldn’t have been a greater experience for me.”
On the individual side, Sam also accomplished her goals. She finished second in the backstroke with a time of 55.83 seconds, finishing just behind Grand Haven senior Kathryn Ackerman (54.77). Sam’s time was a Junior National cut for USA Swimming.
Sam also took the lead backstroke position on Pioneer’s medley relay team that included sophomores Amelia Weyhing, Autumn Bullinger and Holly Pringle. The Pioneers took second overall in 1:44.27, a school record.
Sam has qualified for states in the 100 back all four years. As a freshman, she placed 11th at states with a time of 57.39. She went 56.29 and finished fifth as a sophomore.
“I’ve done well, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to being satisfied,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is to shoot for that first place spot at states. Individually, my goal is to be first in the 100 backstroke at states, and to continue building old and new friendships on the team.”
Quoia, the daughter of Deanda and Quinton Sam, has a 3.81 GPA in the classroom and also plays water polo for the Pioneers.
She also spent five years with Club Wolverine in Ann Arbor. “I started with Club Wolverine when I was 9 until I was 14. CW taught me the foundation of swimming and helped launch my swimming to another level. Through the highs and the lows of my swim career, the knowledge I attained from club swimming has driven me to reach my goals on and off the pool deck.”
Right now, the focus is totally on Pioneer swimming and preparing for the state finals. Sam believes there are a number of reasons why Pioneer has been so consistently good in swimming over the years.
“We have been fortunate to have an enormous amount of talented swimmers,” she says. “In addition, having great coaches such as Stef Kerska and Pat Zakrajsek provide a foundation that encourages their swimmers to stay motivated and driven throughout the season. Swimming with these girls consistently for three months allows us to become a family and I think that is also what motivates us to push through to the very end.”
The end for Sam is Nov. 21 – and she is planning on going out with quite the splash.
Action photo by Jodi Bullinger