1st-Year Coach Brings Winning Experiences

January 18, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special to Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Like dramatic finishes?

Travis Schuba has experienced his share.

As a junior in high school, Schuba dropped a buzzer-beating shot from the corner, as he was falling out of bounds, to give Kalkaska a stunning 48-47 Class C District basketball win over second-ranked Traverse City St. Francis in March of 2009. The Gladiators were 19-1 at the time.

That shot is one of the most memorable in Kalkaska history.

During the winter of 2011, as a sophomore at Madonna University, Schuba drained another fadeaway from the corner as time expired to upset NAIA-ranked Indiana Tech on the road.

That shot is one of the most pivotal in school history as it helped turn the struggling program’s fortunes around, leading to 63 wins over three years.

And then there was last Friday night.

That’s when Traverse City Central electrified its fan base as sophomore Henry Goldkuhle scored twice in the final 10 seconds to lift the Trojans to a wild 62-61 win over crosstown rival Traverse City West, giving the 26-year-old Schuba his first signature win as Central’s head coach.

“All (three) are memories I’ll never forget,” the first-year coach said. “But with this one (win over West) being in the present, it’s a little sweeter.”

What made it sweeter is that the Trojans showed resolve in battling back from a 13-point deficit.

“All the credit goes to the kids for not giving up and believing in what we do,” Schuba said. “I’ve been preaching all year to play for each other, to play within yourself, and if you do that good things will happen.”

The game was reminiscent of last year’s contest at Central when West opened a double-digit lead, only to see the Trojans whittle away at it. Central’s rally fell short a year ago, but not Friday.

“That’s the way it is in these types of emotional games,” said junior guard Tobin Schwannecke, who led all scorers with 27 points. “There’s always going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be crazy endings. We stayed with it. Coach stresses that, (battling) through tough times. We believed we were going to win. That’s what got it done for us.”

Just two months earlier, Schwannecke was experiencing similar feelings. The junior quarterback dashed 37 yards for a touchdown with under two minutes to play to boost Central to a 17-14 win over West in a Division 2 District football championship game.

Friday’s victory raised Central’s record to 7-3 at the halfway point of the regular season. A year ago, a young Trojans’ squad was 1-9 at this juncture before finishing strong to end 8-13.

The 7-3 mark includes a one-point loss to Gaylord and a two-point loss to Marquette, a game in which Central did not score in the first quarter.

“I know 7-3 sounds OK,” Schwannecke said. “But we know we should have a few more (wins). At the same time, maybe every team needs losses like that early in the year to motivate them and stress to not let it happen again, especially as we get late into the season when it really matters. So, 7-3, we’ll take it. But I’d much rather be 10-0 or 9-1, which I think we should be.”

Schuba would like a couple of those games back, too, but he’s pleased with how his players bounced back, especially after the 50-49 setback to Gaylord two weeks ago. Since, the Trojans have topped Rockford and West to put their season back on track.

The win over West came right before exam week and left the Trojans in an upbeat mood.

“It was an insane win,” senior Jordan Vicent said. “It should give us momentum for the rest of the season.”

It’s a season that’s been “a blur” thus far for Schuba, who accepted the job in August, replacing Jeff Turner, who moved downstate. Schuba has been going non-stop since.

“Once I took over, I was trying to get everything in line, get the boys in the gym, meet everybody, and then we had a great football season and (four) of my players were still playing football,” he said. “I didn’t see them until tryouts. Then a couple players, who would have played big minutes, quit. It was a whirlwind start.”

Actually, it was a whirlwind spring and summer, too.

After returning to Madonna last year to finish his degree in business administration, Schuba set out to land a head coaching job. He was a finalist at Gaylord. The Blue Devils ultimately promoted Justin Johnson, but athletic director Christian Wilson contacted Kingsley officials to put a good word in for Schuba about their open position.

One day after his June interview in Kingsley, Schuba was offered the job. He accepted and then withdrew his name for the Traverse City St. Francis vacancy.

This was it, the head coaching break the then 25-year-old was seeking. He began to implement his system in the summer.

“I had a summer with the team – just not the one I’m coaching now,” Schuba said. “A couple months later, I sit where I am now. It was a crazy turn of events.”

When the Central job opened, it was too inviting for Schuba to pass up.

“He told me it was his dream job,” Central athletic director Mark Mattson said.

Plus, it’s a job that does not come open often. Schuba was aware of that.

“Jeff was there 10 years,” he said. “I didn’t feel like this was an opportunity that would come about any time soon if I didn’t jump on it.”

But would the fact that he was 25 and had limited coaching experience hinder his candidacy?

Schuba said he used his background as a positive. In addition to starring at Kalkaska and Madonna (first-team all-Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference selection for two years), he played professionally, including two seasons with the Washington Generals, the team that traveled the world playing the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I have a background of playing, being around the game,” he said. “I let them know, ‘Yes I’m 25, but I’ve played more and seen more than most people.’ And at my age, nowadays, kids tend to relate better to people of a younger nature. So instead of saying I lack head coaching experience, I use (age) to relate to the boys and get them to buy in and trust me on a personal level to be able to get them to do what we need to do to be successful on the court. I think we have a great relationship. We joke off the court, but once we get to practice they know I mean business. I hope they’re having as much fun as I am. These relationships we’re building now will last a lifetime.”

Mattson said Schuba’s personality and drive won him over.

“I put my feelers out because I didn’t know him,” Mattson said. “I had heard positive things about him, that he was an up-and-coming coach, had been there as a player and had that experience coaching (as a student assistant last year) at Madonna.   

“When we interviewed him, he had a confidence and maturity about him that we really liked. We liked what he had to offer, what he was about. We knew hiring a 25-year-old with no head coaching experience might be rolling the dice and taking a chance, but that’s what we did.”

 And Central has not looked back.

“Besides the fact that he has the guys competing and we’re having success under his leadership, I’ve been really impressed with the way he’s set his standards for the program,” Mattson said. “He doesn’t waver from those. For a 26-year-old now, he gets it. He does a great job interacting with people. He’s focused. He’s driven. When he wants something done, needs something done, he gets after it.”

Mattson said he’s also been impressed with Schuba’s relationships with game officials.

“We’ve received compliments on the way he’s handled himself,” Mattson said. “He holds his staff and himself to high standards. That stuff can be teachable, but when he comes in with it and gets it right away that absolutely reflects positively on the kids, the program and the parents.”

Schuba was on the links, playing a round at the Grandview Golf Club in Kalkaska, when he received word from the district’s human resources office that he had been picked for the job.

“I actually missed the call and had to call back,” he said. “I was teeing off, so as soon as I got back to the cart I gave them a call. It made the rest of the round a little sweeter. I was able to play with more freedom. I wasn’t nervous thinking about it (anymore).”

Still, it was difficult to leave a job he had just accepted.

“I can’t say enough good things about Kingsley for the opportunity they gave me as a young coach without any head coaching experience, other than AAU, to trust me to run that program,” he said.

The Central players applauded the hire.

Vicent played AAU ball for Schuba last summer.

“We’ve been building off that relationship and it’s been going well,” he said. “I feel close to him, and I hope he feels close to me.”

Schwannecke did not play AAU ball with Schuba, but he knew about him.

“Obviously, he’s a pretty big name up here,” he said. “We loved Coach Turner, but after he left Coach Schuba was one of the first guys that came to mind that I would like to have coach us. He pushes us to be our best every day.”

Schuba, an administrative assistant at the high school, said the biggest realization he’s had coaching is that the same approach does not motivate every player.

“You have to realize these kids are 16 and 17,” he said. “Each one is different, and going through different things, so you find a way to coach them differently, but still learn the same things. You can’t yell at every kid the same. You can’t coddle every kid the same. You have to approach each differently and try to find what works and gets them to play at their highest level while still learning the game of basketball and learning life lessons.”

One person not surprised by Schuba’s success is his former college coach at Madonna, Noel Emenhiser.

“Travis has always had an unbelievable understanding of the game,” he said. “That was one of his greatest strengths (as a player). You can look at the individual skills that he has – his shooting ability jumps out – but he really understood how the game was supposed to be played and what it took to be successful.

“He comes from a basketball family. His older brother (Chuck) was a successful college player and high school coach. He understood the game from the day he arrived here. He understood why things worked and why they didn’t. I thought it was a pretty natural fit to want to coach. In addition to understanding the game, Travis has an incredible confidence and that’s important in coaching because he knows what he needs to do, and he has the ability and belief in it to make sure that it happens. He doesn’t go home questioning whether he’s doing the right things. He knows he is, and he’s going to ensure the players believe in that and buy into the same things he does.

“If I were to guess, I would think the players really enjoy playing for him. I’m sure he’s tough and demanding, but at the same time I’m sure he really builds confidence into his players in the way that they understand what it takes (to succeed) and they know they can do it.”

That connection between Schuba and his players was evident on the gym floor following Central’s win over West.

“It was a sea of people, and everyone was excited,” Mattson said. “I was about five feet away as I watched one of our players try to find (Schuba). He was seeking him out to give him a great big bear hug. And when he did, Travis had a huge smile on his face. It was something special as an athletic director to observe this from a distance. That’s what it’s about right there.”

It was another memory-maker for the young coach.

And as for that shot that took down St. Francis in the 2009 high school tournament, that one is hard to forget, too.

His brother, Chuck, who is 11 years older, was the Kalkaska coach at the time.

“I give that one to my brother,” Travis Schuba said. “He did his studies. We threw in a bunch of defensive sets, mixed it the whole game, and slowed them down.”

Ironically, Schuba was supposed to be the decoy on the game-winning play, but he ended up with the ball. The rest is history.

“I still have people ask me, ‘Do you remember that shot?’” he said. “Of course, I remember that shot. It was one of the coolest moments of my career.”

The game-winner for Madonna registers, too. The Crusaders had won eight games in Schuba’s freshman season – Emenhiser’s second at the helm. They had started the 2011-12 season 0-4 when Schuba hit the shot to upset Indiana Tech.

“There were two seconds left on the clock,” Emenhiser recalled. “We ran him off a screen. He went flying into the corner, caught the ball and shot it all in one motion – nothing but the bottoms. That propelled us. We won our next nine games. It was the beginning of that (63-win) run we had for three years. Before (Schuba’s class arrived), we had one winning season in program history. We were still trying to build a culture and change who we were. We had played some good games, but the guys didn’t yet believe we could be a great team. That shot really gave the guys a ton of confidence. It was a pivotal moment in our program.”

Madonna later went on to a win a conference tournament title and play in the NAIA national tournament.

Schuba, who still holds the Madonna career records for 3-pointers made (399) and 3-point accuracy (better than 40 percent), wants his Central players to embrace success as well.

And it seems to be working.

“Coach Schuba does a great job instilling in us that we should expect to win,” Schwannecke said.

So far, so good. 

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City Central coach Travis Schuba watches his team work during its game against Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central this season. (Middle) Traverse City Central's Tobin Schwannecke gets to the basket a week ago against Traverse City West. (Below) Central players celebrate their win over the Titans. (Photos by Rick Sack/TC Rick Photo.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)