With a small team, University-Liggett surfaces as CHSL girls swimming contender

Despite having no pool at its school to train in together, the Grosse Pointe Woods University-Liggett girls' swim team has quickly made a mark in Catholic League and statewide competition. (Photo courtesy of University-Liggett School)

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — Here’s everything you need to know about the Grosse Pointe Woods University-Liggett girls swim team: the squad didn’t even exist before last season. It’s not a large team, and can’t fill all the lineup spots. The Knights don’t have their own pool. The girls don’t practice together.

And despite those circumstances, they have quickly become one of the top teams in the state.

In its inaugural season last year, the team finished fourth in the Catholic League championships, behind traditional powerhouses Farmington Hills Mercy, Bloomfield Hills Marian and Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook. The following week, Liggett distinguished itself at the Division 3 state finals, finishing sixth.

“I knew we came in with talented swimmers, but I definitely didn’t think we’d be able to do as well as we did at the state meet,” coach Nick Valice said.

Sophie Housey was the state champion in the 100 freestyle, setting a new Division 3 record of 50.23 seconds. She also won the 200 freestyle in 1:48.37. Ginger McMahon won the 100 breaststroke in 1:04.94.

The Knights were also all-state medalists in two relay events: Housey, McMahon, Ariana Herman and Harisen Davis finished sixth in the 200 medley (1:50.82) and eighth in the 400 freestyle (3:40.07).

All four of those girls return, and the team has added a few new members this fall — now 11 strong — making Liggett’s potential just as bright this fall. The Knights are ranked seventh in the state by the Michigan Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association.

“Our goal is to go top-five in the state. Things are looking pretty good for us,” Valice said. “I don’t think we will ever be able to get to that full team, just because our enrollment is so small, but having the high-level swimmers we do, we’re still going to be able to stay competitive for a while.”

Obviously, the Knights have obtained success in some pretty unconventional ways, and quickly, at that. Before 2018, Liggett had never sponsored swimming for girls. There were a few girls who participated on the boys’ squad, most recently seven or eight years ago. The new squad started with a push from students, who were all active in the sport through other channels.

“We had a lot of high-level swimmers in the school,” Valice said. “They all trained with different club teams, they had experience. Sophie was one of the ones that tried to get it started and get things in motion, and it actually worked out really well.”

“It’s really fun to represent our school because it’s something we’ve never been able to do before,” Housey said. “For me personally, I never really did anything else except soccer for a few years, and I was never good enough. Swimming took over early on, so it’s all I got to do. I never got to play a high school sport, so it was just fun to have a team atmosphere and help guide all the girls to do our best every meet.”

Competing interscholastically also helped raise Housey’s profile — she’s given a verbal commitment to continue her career at the University of Michigan next year.

“It’s going to be fun,” she said. “I’ve got a lot more swimming ahead of me.”

Sophomore Grace Wesley is on the team for the first time after transferring from Grosse Pointe North last winter. She is also an active year-round swimmer, but ran cross-country “for the cross-training” since North did not permit club swimmers to compete on the school team at the same time.

As a member of the Knights, she has fit right in.

“I played tennis in the spring because I’ve kind of played tennis my whole life too, but swimming’s my main sport,” Wesley said. “I met a bunch of girls through tennis, and on swimming I knew all the girls on the team, but I got to know them closer.”

Wesley said that camaraderie helps the team become even more successful.

“Our main goal is probably just getting to know each other. Our team works together even though we’re small. We’re pretty close with each other,” she said. “Our goals are definitely move up from sixth, maybe fourth or fifth this year at the state meet, and maybe even move up to second or third at Catholic Leagues.”

“For how small of a team it is and how little we’re together, it’s really impressed me how much these girls can come together and act like a team and a unit, even though they’re only together 10 times a year,” Valice said. “I think part of it might be the school being so small (an enrollment of 286 in grades 9-12), this team’s camaraderie is probably stronger than any of the other teams I’ve coached.”

Because of its small size, the team doesn’t approach dual meets looking for victory.

“I think it’s more of a chance for the girls to try different events and see where they’re at in the season,” Valice said. “Usually when I write a lineup, I’ll just put a girl where I want to see them, and see what they do there. Our main focus right now is Catholic Leagues and the state meet.”

Even so, the Knights won three of their first six dual meets, and in doing so, achieved several state-meet qualifying marks.

“I think we’re really doing good for the size of our team. We’re getting better every meet,” Housey said. “It’s been fun, just like, fun, to swim for Liggett and start up a team.”