By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Few if any Michigan high school sports have seen the bar continue to rise and records continue to fall like swimming & diving since the turn of this century.
But as winning times continue to rev faster and faster, the 2002 Ann Arbor Pioneer girls team continues to hold a lofty spot as arguably the most dominating in MHSAA history.
The 2002 Finals were the first in the Lower Peninsula organized by two divisions instead of the traditional class format, and Pioneer entered having won the last two LP Class A titles.
The Pioneers claimed that first Division 1 title with an astounding 476 points, and by 275 on the rest of the field. No LP Division 1 team has broken 400 points at a Final since, and Pioneer’s 184.5-point win in 2008 has come closest to that 2002 margin of victory.
Pioneer placed the champions in all three relays, three individual races and diving that Nov. 23 at Eastern Michigan University. The team was led by future three-time Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce, and her swims that day in the 100-yard freestyle (48.59 seconds), as part of the 200 freestyle relay (Joyce, Margaret Kelly, Leigh Cole, Suzannah Merte – 1:33.71) and in the 50 (22.04) as the lead leg in that relay still stand as the oldest all-Finals records in MHSAA history. At the time, the 100 freestyle and 200 relay times also broke national girls high school records, as did Joyce’s winning and then-MHSAA record time of 1:46.34 in the 200 freestyle.
The 2002 championship run was the 10th of 16 guided by legendary coaches Denny and Liz Hill (Liz was his assistant until becoming the co-head coach in 2007 and has been part of the staff for all 16 titles). It also was not only the team’s third straight, but ended up being part of a string of nine consecutive MHSAA Finals wins.
In addition to Joyce and the 200 freestyle relay’s wins, Pioneer won the 200 medley relay (Kelly, Ilene Lesch, Melissa Jaeger, Ally Wyatt) in 1:46.14, Jaeger won the butterfly in 56.33, the 400 freestyle relay (Cole, Jaeger, Merte, Joyce) won in 3:26.96 and Ellen Van Cleve won diving with a score of 446.10.
Joyce went on to swim at University of Georgia and then during the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She won four silver medals, two each as part of 400-meter freestyle and 400-meter medley relays. Jaeger, Cole and Kelly swam at University of Michigan, Lesch at Arizona State University, and Van Cleve also dove for the Wolverines.
PHOTO: Ann Arbor Pioneer celebrates the Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship; future Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce stands middle, just below the trophy.