by Eva Dean Folkert
There may be no better way to honor a retiring coach than to hand him the trophy that your team just won during his final season at the helm. The Hope College women's swimming and diving team joyfully — and skillfully — gave co-head coach John Patnott that perfect gift when it captured the league title at the 2019 MIAA Championships on Saturday night at the Holland Aquatic Center.
The championship is the Flying Dutch's first since 2004 and the 22nd MIAA women's title secured by a Patnott-coached team in his 39 years at Hope. (He also coached 12 men's teams to MIA titles.)
To claim its league crown, Hope edged defending-champion Calvin College by 17 points over the course of the three-and-half day championship meet. The Flying Dutch totaled 810 points, while the Knights finished second with 793 points. Albion College took third place with 681 points, Kalamazoo was fourth with 496, Alma was fifth with 236 and Olivet had 176.
"It is an unbelievable way to go out. Our kids performed so well," said Patnott who is retiring from Hope at the end of the academic year. "It was so exciting. The environment, it was amazing. It was just a lot of fun."
"It doesn't get a whole lot more poetic than for the most legendary swim coach in MIAA history to win a championship in his last season," said co-head coach Jake Taber who had just won his first MIAA title as a Hope coach, too. "I couldn't be happier for him and I'm really proud of the women. They stepped up, and they competed to no end. Just awesome results by all of them."
Photo of Jake Taber, left, and John Patnott, right, by Eva Dean Folkert
Meg Peel is the swimmer who played a major role in a number of those awesome results. The sophomore from Spring Lake (Spring Lake HS) won each of her individual events and swam legs on three winning relays over the course of the championship. For those stellar efforts, she was voted the Most Valuable Swimmer of the Year.
"Our races were so solid," described Peel, who has swept the MIAA backstroke events during her two seasons at Hope. "Most of us were so focused on our own races and not worried about what (our opponents) were doing which helped a lot to hone in and just swim for Coach P. It was really exciting."
Photo of Meg Peel, left, and Hope Co-AD Melinda DuPree, right, by Tom Renner
On Saturday night in a raucous and charged atmosphere, Hope swimmers added five more titles to their already-impressive medal haul.
To start the final session of the championship, senior Abigail Brinks of Commerce Township, Michigan (Walled Lake Northern HS) captured the 1650 freestyle with a time of 17:42.17. Brinks lopped 38 seconds off her seeded time to win her first MIAA title.
In the next event, Peel repeated as MIAA champ in the 200 backstroke with a time of 2:00.96, fifth-fasted time in the nation this year. It was also a solid B-cut time.
Junior Paula Nolte of Elmhurst, Illinois (York Community HS) touched the wall first and then climbed to the top spot on the podium for her win in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:25.29. She three-peated the event, having won it in 2017 and 2018, too.
Junior Erin Emmert of Grand Blanc, Michigan (Powers Catholic) captured the 200 butterfly title with a time of 2:06.70.
Finally, the 400 medley relay team of junior Allison Eppinga of Saline (Saline HS), sophomore Emma Schaefer of of DeWitt (Saint Johns HS), senior Sydney Asselin of Holland (Holland Christian HS) and Peel brought home another Hope event win, and the team title, with a swim of 3:30.14.
"The women knew they had an opportunity, and they embraced it," said Taber. "We knew on paper we were not considered the favorite this week, but we also knew we had a chance. In order for us to do what we did tonight, we had to set the table and come and bring it each and every session. And the women had to buy in and they had to believe. They believed in themselves this week, and they went out and they competed without fear. And they had fun doing it."
Other finals heat finishers on Saturday were:
- Freshman Paul Kuhn of Dorr (Hamilton HS), freshman Abigail LaDuke of Holland (West Ottawa HS), junior Alison Sobkowski of Portage, Indiana (Portage HS) who finished fourth (17:54.15), seventh (18:13.80), and 10th (18:30.05), respectively, in the 1650 freestyle;
- Emmert and sophomore Hope Reynolds of Exon, Pennsylvania (Vila Maria Academy) who claimed fifth (2:06.63) and sixth (2:07.58), respectively, in the 200 backstroke.
- Eppinga who garnered a second-place finish and B-cut time in the 100 freestyle with a time of 51.64 while Asselin took eighth place in the same event in 53.78;
- Freshman Aubrey East of Farmington Hills (North Farmington) and junior Erica Slenk of Zeeland (Holland Christian) who finished fourth (2:29.56) and seventh (2:31.06), respectively, in the 200 breaststroke; and,
- Senior Sara Plohetski of and senior Areal Tolsma of Holland (Holland Christian) dived to third (426.35) and eighth (303.70) finishes on the 1-meter board. Plohetski's performance earned her a B-cut mark.
Saturday consolation finishers who added to Hope's total were:
- Freshman Alyssa Potyraj of Grandville (Grandville HS) who finished 10th in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:31.81;
- Senior Sara Hudson of Novi (Walled Lake Western), senior Betsy Craig of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids HS), and sophomore Mackenzie Ralston of Norton Shores, Michigan (Mona Shores HS) who raced to 10th (2:18.89), 11th (2:20.13) and 14th place (2:23.40), respectively, in the 200 butterfly.
So, to recap the past three-and-half days of competition, the Flying Dutch swam to nine individual titles, three relay wins, seven NCAA B-cut marks, three school records, and one MIAA title. Not bad for a team that was initially considered the underdog.