There are a lot of different ways to measure a champion. It’s easy to just add up the numbers and say 184 points is the best way to describe the 2020 Pioneer girls’ swimming and diving team. And while 184 points is a pretty convincing number – that’s how many points they won Saturday’s Division 1 MHSAA state meet by – there is more to this story than one dominant number.
And this isn’t just the beginning for Pioneer, and it clearly isn’t the end, either.
In the last four years, the Pioneers moved up the state ladder from 23rd place to seventh place to second place to champion.
“I told the team I will remember them not for hanging the first banner in a dozen years but more for their strength resilience and deep resolve to give their team the very best they had,” said Pioneer Coach Stephanie Kerska.
The top-ranked Pioneers were the favorites entering Saturday with a majority of their team returning from 2019. They won their first Finals since 2008 and avenged a heartbreaking half-point loss to Farmington Hills Mercy at last year’s championship meet.
“This season was difficult,” said Quoia Sam, one of the team’s captains. “It was a mental game more than anything else, but this team was headstrong from the start. I think our determination to bring it home this year suppressed any challenge that was thrown our way.”
Sam says the entire team was committed to winning it all this year and that hunger only grew as the season swam along.
“I believe the team has talent, sure, but our determination and grit keeps that talent alive and burning,” she says. “Our coaches, Stef and Pat (Patrick Zakrajsek), have built a great foundation and philosophy for this team. I truly don’t know where we’d would be without them.
“I am humbled and honored to say I have been a teammate and captain for this team, I couldn’t have asked for anything greater. Pioneer Swimming has much more to offer and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for them.”
Let’s take a quick look at that future. Let’s just say the Pioneers have a good chance at repeating next year. Sure things can change, but they return a very formidable lineup led by a dominating and talented junior class. Sam was the only Pioneer senior at States on Saturday – of course, she was pretty good, taking third in the backstroke and swimming on the medley relay.
Pioneer’s goals always begin with winning the tough SEC but next season should also include repeating as state champions.
Hopefully, they won’t have to deal with the unique challenges of 2020.
“They started the season tough out in a lake when it was freezing and they finished up really strong and they just never took their foot off the gas,” Kerska said. “It was a combination of discipline and desire for them, especially during the hiatus.
“As trying as it was, I think everyone is so grateful for everything everyone did to put this on to finish the season. We’ve been going since June, and they put the time and effort in to make this happen.”
Perspective is another way to measure a champion. And what other teams think of your program helps put things into perspective.
“They are an absolute class organization, they are one of the best coached teams in the state and I’m happy for them,” said Mercy coach Mike Venos. “I saw the looks on their faces. As happy as we were last year, I saw the disappointment on their faces. We knew they were coming. Stephanie and the gang are building a nice powerhouse over there again.”
Pioneer knows all about powerhouses. Kerska is a former swimmer at Pioneer and she learned from two of the best coaches in the history of Michigan high school swimming, Denny Hill and his wife, Liz. They guided the Pioneers to 16 state championships over four decades.
Pioneer swimming is back and it’s not going anywhere for a while.
Sidenote for number’s geeks like myself: Mercy finished with 184 points at the State Finals, the same number that Pioneer beat them by.