By Andrew Johnson

MUSKEGON – There are good seasons, and there are challenging seasons.

The 2019 season was definitely a good one for the Muskegon Co-op Lady Turtles high school swimming and diving team, which is comprised of athletes from Mona Shores, Muskegon Catholic, North Muskegon, Western Michigan Christian and Reeths-Puffer.

Evyn Johnson.

They posted a perfect 12-0 record and won the O-K Rainbow Tier 2 conference championship.

But this season started out on a more difficult note, to say the least, for reasons out of the team’s control.

First came their inability to have preseason practice in a standard competitive pool, because Gov. Whitmer’s Executive Order 160 closed all public pools throughout the southern Lower Peninsula due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Lady Turtles had to settle for occasional practices in split groups in the pool at the Muskegon Yacht Club, and also swimming from boat to boat near the yacht club in Muskegon Lake.

“It was very tough on us, especially with a lot of other teams having access to pools,” said Lady Turtles Coach Mick Homan. “We did a lot of dry land and lake swim type things.

“It kind of put a damper on things. We usually start the season with a weekend of team bonding, then by the end of August we usually have a relay meet up in Ludington. This year, not knowing what we could do kind of threw things off.”

Evyn Johnson cuts through the water during a recent match at Holland on October 3.

Swimming and diving teams were finally cleared to compete on Sept. 4, but there was another problem. The team’s home pool, at Muskegon High School, is closed for maintenance, and Coach Homan isn’t sure when or if it will be available this season.

The Lady Turtles had to cancel five meets – three in August and two in September – including four that were supposed to be at home. They were only able to compete once in the first month of the season. 

Despite all of those troubles coming out of the gate, the season started out on a high note on Sept. 15 when the Lady Turtles traveled to Spring Lake and won in surprisingly easy fashion, 104-42.

“It was a huge surprise and relief for us,” said Homan, whose team of 34 swimmers and four divers has been practicing at the Muskegon Heights High School pool since the season started. “We just told the girls, ‘We’ll see where we’re at,’ and it was a good starting point for us.”

The victory also produced good news on an individual front. Senior Evyn Johnson of North Muskegon swam extremely well in the 50- freestyle, and her time of 24.73 qualified her to compete in the MHSAA state finals in November.

Evyn Johnson looks up at the scoreboard while coach Mick Homan signals to a teammate in the water.

It was the third straight year that Johnson qualified for state in that event. She said it felt good to get it out of the way quickly this season and start out on a high note.

“It’s a lot less stressful now,” Johnson said. “It feels good knowing that I have it out of the way.”

Johnson also qualified for state in the 100-freestyle for the second straight year in a meet on Saturday with a time of 54.19.

Last year Johnson didn’t advance past the preliminary round of the MHSAA finals in either of those events, but is hopeful of finishing in the top 16 in at least the 50-yard freestyle this year. She finished 17th in the state in that event last year,

“Top eight would be perfect,” said Johnson, who also qualified for state in the 200-freestyle relay in 2019. “My goal was top 16 last year, and I just missed it by one. I was a little disappointed, but it was also satisfying to know that I was so close.”

Johnson, who has been swimming competitively for 11 years, enjoys the fact that it’s both a team and individual sport.

Caroline Carlson listens to instruction during warmups.

“You can talk to people, but yet you’re also by yourself,” she said. “When you’re in the pool you’re kind of in your own thoughts. I like that it’s a team sport, but also an individual challenge.”

While Johnson enjoys that balance, she plays an important team role, because she’s a second-year captain with natural leadership abilities, according to Homan.

“She’ll set the tone,” the coach said. “She isn’t rah-rah or get in your face, but she’ll get in the pool to start practice and people will follow. If I could have 34 like her, it would be a perfect season. She’s a great leader. The team feeds off the energy she brings.”

The team’s second meet, on Saturday in Holland, didn’t go quite as well as the first, even though Johnson turned in another state qualifying time.

The Lady Turtles  beat Hudsonville Unity Christian 126-57, but lost the Grand Rapids Christian 98-88, and lost to Holland Christian 105-81 in a conference dual. They are now 2-2 overall and 1-1 in conference competition.

Things aren’t going to get any easier for the Lady Turtles, because they were moved to the tougher O-K Rainbow Tier 1 conference this year, which has a lot of strong teams.

But Johnson, for one, thinks the team is doing just fine, and she can’t wait to see what the Lady Turtles can accomplish throughout the rest of the season.

“We’ve grown stronger as a team,” she said. “It was a little hard when we didn’t have a pool to swim in, and difficult when we couldn’t do our overnight camp to bond. But we’ve made it through it and I’m happy with where we’re at.”