Accomplished Official Also at Home in Huddle Guiding Vandercook Lake Comeback

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

January 11, 2022

JACKSON – Cory Ray is right where he is supposed to be.

The second-year Vandercook Lake boys basketball coach has the Jayhawks off to their best start in years, setting up a key Cascades Conference battle for tonight against another undefeated team, Napoleon.

After spending a decade as a basketball referee in southeast Michigan, Ray has thrown his passion into coaching. It’s been an interesting transition, but one he is thoroughly enjoying.

“I never thought I would switch over to being a coach,” Ray said. “It’s been crazy, but I’m enjoying it.”

Ray is a 2003 Vandercook Lake graduate. He played basketball for the Jayhawks but soon found his calling as an umpire in baseball and basketball official. He has climbed the ladder as an umpire; he worked the MHSAA Finals a few years ago, moved up to NAIA and Division III and now regularly is called for Division I college games. 

His basketball career took a turn when Vandercook Lake needed a junior high coach.

“I started talking to them about it,” Ray recalls. “I started doing that, and coaching just grew on me.”

When the Jayhawks varsity position opened in 2017, he applied, but didn’t get the job. He wasn’t discouraged.

“I didn’t get it because of a lack of experience,” he said. 

He kept coaching at the junior high level. Before the pandemic, he finally got his chance. 

Vandercook Lake basketball“I don’t want a varsity job anywhere but Vandercook Lake. I always figured if I am going to put that kind of investment and time into a head coaching position, I want it here, where I went to school, where my kids go to school,” he said. “If I’m going to do it, I want to do it in the place where I am from.”

Ray, 37, lives in the district and his wife Sarah is the Jayhawks cheer coach. One of their daughters is in the eighth grade. 

He’s thrown himself into the job and helped the Jayhawks taste success after a couple of down years. The 2017-18 team won only two games, and the 2019-20 team just four.

Last year Vandercook Lake went 9-9 in the shortened season, encouraging Ray about this winter. The seniors last year, he said, helped bring along the younger players.

“I had a great relationship with them,” he said. “They really set the foundation for this year’s team.”

The 6-0 start, however, is more than even Ray could have imagined. The 12-player varsity roster includes 11 seniors.

“I knew we could be good,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how good.”

One of the reasons Ray was confident about this season was the return of 6-foot senior Demarion Smith. “It’s always a good starting point when you have someone who averaged 21 points a game come back,” Ray said.

Smith’s presence gives opposing defenses plenty to think about. But he’s far from being the only scoring threat on the roster.

“We have shooters everywhere,” Ray said.

Anthony Jimenez has had some big games already. Jermaine Buckner is the true point guard who runs the show. Tyrell Showers and Avery Pierce are on the verge of breakout seasons.

Against Manchester last week, Buckner nearly recorded a triple-double with 26 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and five steals. An earlier game, he hit four triples in the first half to keep the team close before the others got hot.

“Doing what he does really opens up the floor for Smith and Jimenez,” Ray said. 

Since Ray knew he had an offense to count on, he spent the summer and preseason focusing on defense.

Vandercook Lake basketball“We knew our focus had to be on the defensive end. We knew that had to be good. Plus, we do a nice job of crashing the boards,” he said. “If we can hold teams in the 30s and 40s, it’s going to be hard to lose. We have a couple kids on the verge of being big-time players for us. I see a lot of growth on the floor.”

The community has bought into the team, too, supporting the Jayhawks at every turn, from being in the stands to helping the team give back. 

“The thing that I’m most happy and impressed with is how the community has responded and supported,” he said. 

The transition from referee to coach gives Ray a different perspective. 

“Being a high school basketball coach has made me a better umpire,” he said. “Being on both sides, you can see the investment the coaches put in and why they care so much. It definitely gives you a different perspective. You start to see both sides of it. You get why the coaches are so intense, so into the games.”

It’s still early in the season, but tonight’s matchup between the Jayhawks (6-0) and Napoleon (6-0) has the makings of a beauty. It could be viewed as a possible changing of the guard in the conference, lately dominated by Hanover-Horton, which has won or shared league titles seven of the past eight seasons but is off to just a 2-4 start.

Vandercook Lake last won Cascades Conference titles in 2011 and 2012. Napoleon hasn’t won one since 2008-09.

“You love to see someone from your area, your conference, do well. But, at the same time, you like to see someone else give it a run,” Ray said. “We just have to continue to play with the same identity we’ve been playing.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Vandercook Lake coach Cory Ray huddles with his team during a timeout this season. (Middle) Ray and two of the community’s youth players show off championship hardware. (Below) Jayhawks fill a grocery cart during a Christmas shopping trip to benefit a local family. (Photos courtesy of the Vandercook Lake boys basketball program.)

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

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

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 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.)