60 Years Later, Chassell Streak Stands

March 22, 2016

Sixty years ago, something happened in Michigan high school boys basketball that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since – three Upper Peninsula teams won titles. Stephenson beat Detroit St. Andrew, 73-71 in overtime when “Marvelous” Mel Peterson made the first basket of sudden death; Crystal Falls (before it was called Forest Park) beat Berrien Springs, 71-69, in Class C; and Chassell won the first of three straight Class D titles, beating Portland St. Patrick, 71-68, by rallying from a 15-point deficit with less than four minutes to play. 

The win was part of Chassell’s state record 65-game winning streak, which still stands. Below is an excerpt of a piece on the Chassell streak written before the teams were honored as part of the “Legends of the Games” program at the 1998 Boys Basketball Finals. 

The old adage in sports states that records are made to be broken. The longer, however, the record stands, the more legendary the accomplishment becomes.

Chassell's wins were the centerpiece of Upper Peninsula success in the MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament during the first 11 years after the format unified the two peninsulas. From 1932 to 1947, separate finals were conducted in both peninsulas. Between 1948 and 1958, Upper Peninsula schools won three Class B crowns (there were no Class A schools in the U.P. at the time), two Class C titles, and seven Class D championships – over one-third of the available first-place finishes.

Wrote the Marquette Mining Journal in 1956, the year that Stephenson in Class B, Crystal Falls in Class C and Chassell in Class D all won MHSAA titles, "All of these is a startling figure since in the period the U.P. has only 42 (schools) -- one eighth of all the lower class quarterfinalists.

"Under the law of averages, the U.P. should come up with one state champ every three years."

It looked at first that the law of averages would catch up with Chassell. After starting the 1955-56 season with 11 straight wins, the Panthers lost a close January game at Trout Creek, and then won their way downstate into the finals against Portland St. Patrick. In that final game, St. Patrick held a 15-point lead at 68-53 with less than four minutes to play.

Coach Ed Helakoski, the architect of the Chassell winning streak, called time out and told his team to apply full court pressure, a rarity at the high school level at that time.

Playing without standouts Terry Pokela and Tom Peters, who had fouled out, Chassell scored the final 18 points of the contest, the biggest game-ending rally in Finals history, and won the first crown, 71-68. Sophomore guard Don Mattson scored the winning points with only seconds to play, finished the game with a finals record 25 points, and the Panthers finished the season 25-1 with 14 consecutive victories.

During the 25-0 run to the crown in 1956-57, the only close games were regular-season wins against National Mine (71-66), L'Anse (64-63), Doelle (73-69), and a 58-50 decision over Stevensville in the championship game at Jenison Fieldhouse. Of the other 21 games, none were closer than 13 points, and the average margin of victory was 27 points.

The winning streak stood at 39 entering the 1957-58 season, and the 10-year state record of 59 consecutive victories by Mass from 1947-49 was within reach. However, Mattson was the only returning starter from the back-to-back championship teams, and perhaps Helakoski's greatest coaching job lay ahead to replace four starters in a school which had just over 30 boys enrolled in grades 9-12.

Doelle, which had given the Panthers one of its closest games the season before, was leading, 62-60, in an early-season contest. As time ran out, Bob Belhummer of Chassell was fouled at midcourt and sent to the free throw line with a one-and-one opportunity. Belhummer sank both shots to force the only overtime game of the streak, a 72-66 victory.

The new state record of 60 consecutive victories came in a 45-43 decision over Marenisco in the MHSAA District championship game. A trip over the newly-constructed Mackinaw Bridge came two weeks later and the Panthers became the first school to bring an MHSAA trophy across the structure when the 65th victory was recorded, a 66-61 decision over Owosso St. Paul. Mattson tallied 27 points in the finale to set another championship game record.

In the 40 years since Chassell's incredible feat, only twice has the winning streak been threatened. Flint Northwestern racked up 60 victories between January of 1984 and February of 1986; and Saginaw Buena Vista had a streak reach 55 games between December of 1991 and December of 1993.

In many communities, success streaks come and go, but a constant ideal of school sports then and today was captured by John Pyykkonen, a guard and forward on the 1956 and 1957 teams who summarized the events: "I remember the friendly competition amongst the members of the team and how well we worked together and how our parents, fans and the community were behind us 100 percent of the way. One of the greatest highlights in a young man's life and will never be forgotten."

Records were made to be broken. But legends, especially Legends of the Games like Chassell, endure the test of time.

GLORY DAYS ... Remembering The Streak

John Pyykkonen - 1956-57 Guard-Forward: "One thing I remember clearly, besides the games, is walking into Jenison Fieldhouse and being totally awestruck by the raised floor and the huge (in my eyes) guides who showed us around the building. I recall the game in 1956 when we were so far behind in points and we were able to overcome the point deficit by a full court press. The huge crowd gathered there were all cheering for the small-town team."

Robert Belhumer - 1956-1957-1958 Guard: "We had a great camaraderie among the members of our team. Also Chassell is a small town in the Upper Peninsula and the fans were there rooting for us during our seasonal games and were there for us at the championship games in Lansing."

Donald Jaakkola - 1956 Guard (On the championship game): "We ran out onto the court to a crowd of 12,000 people, most of whom were cheering for Portland St. Patrick. Needless to say, we felt a bit in awe as we came from Chassell, a small town in the Upper Peninsula.

"We were down 15 points with four minutes to go and two of our tallest players had fouled out earlier. Coach Ed Helakoski called a timeout and the basketball gods were with us. We threw a full court press defense and scored 18 points while holding St. Patrick scoreless. It gave us a screaming 71 to 68 victory. The crowd of 12,000 was now cheering for us."

Mike Wisti - 1956 Guard (On Coach Ed Helakoski): “I am quite sure there are many who will remember Ed Helakoski as a good coach. I'm sure he was a good coach; he had a knack for demanding discipline and teamwork, while not stifling the creativity of his players. However, I believe he should also be remembered as a great classroom teacher. He taught Government one year and Sociology the next and was the best classroom teacher that I had in high school. His ability to make Government interesting and explain how everything was designed to work is probably one of the biggest reasons for my lifelong interest in government and politics."

Kenneth Tormala - 1956-1957-1958 Forward: "The first year we surprised a lot of teams and people by winning the state championship. The second year we were picked to win when the year started and it would have been a real disappointment not to have done so. The third year was a real challenge since we lost so many players, but we had the backbone of the team, Don Mattson, who was an all-stater. This team was the most closely knit of all. We had a lot of very close games and had to dig down to everything we had learned to win many of them. A very satisfying year and we kept the winning streak going, to the surprise of many, including the previous teams.

"These memories will be fondly remembered until we die. Thank you to the late Mr. Helakoski."

James Komula, 1958 Guard (On what stands out from that season): "Being from a small town and playing in small gyms, the spaciousness and large crowd in Jenison Fieldhouse proved very exciting. Also, the reception and festivities upon our triumphant return to Chassell will forever be a highlight of personal memories. People were waiting in their vehicles nearly 30 miles from town to accompany our motorcade home.

"Although I didn't give it much thought, the experience and influence of playing on that team would set the direction for my career. Upon graduation from Michigan Tech, I was given an interim position to teach and coach at L'Anse High School. In 1966, I was assistant coach when L'Anse won the Class C state championship. After that I moved to Livonia, where in later years I was head coach at Bentley High School. Although I never intended, my high school basketball did influence my career to work with youngsters, and help them share in the rewards of the commitment and lifelong learning of athletics."

Terry Pokela, 1956-1957 Center: "We truly had a team. Coach Helakoski did not allow us to think of individual statistics or anything like that. He constantly emphasized the team concept. It certainly paid off.

"Also, we were one of the first teams to fast break after every missed shot by opponents. Our three-lane break broke many team's backs, as they couldn't keep up with us. Coach Helakoski emphasized rebounding position to enable the fast break to get started. We could also shoot field goals from any part of the court. Don Mattson would have scored 40 points a game if the three-point field goal would have been in effect."

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.)