GRAND RAPIDS – It may be a familiar destination for Wyoming Tri-unity Christian's boys basketball team. But there's no arguing the path to get there has been strewn with potholes this season.
The Defenders will play in their ninth MHSAA Finals championship game since 1996 after racing past Rudyard 61-43 in Thursday's first Division 4 Semifinal at Van Andel Arena.
While playing in a Final is nothing new for Tri-unity, the win overcame another obstacle in what has been a challenging season for the Defenders (14-2), who move along to Saturday's 10 a.m. championship game at Breslin Center. Among the issues Tri-unity has overcome include playing only 10 regular-season games, axing the last two weeks of the schedule due to a COVID shutdown, playing only once in an abbreviated Regional and losing 12 seniors – plus coach Mark Keeler – to quarantine protocol early in the year.
Despite the reduced schedule and missing out on the chance to build early momentum, the Defenders have more than prevailed. The program has won four Finals titles and will make its ninth trip under Keeler, who this winter passed Paul Cook for sixth place on the state's all-time win list (627).
"It's been a very trying year," Keeler said. "I knew we had good potential, and guys have responded so well. We played a tough schedule, the kind of competition you want. We were able to stay humble, which is always something I have believed in. It's been a tough year, but it's been really exciting for the school.
"The guys have played awesome all the way through. We were confident we could make it to the Breslin, and we peaked at the right time. We've got a great senior group, and we really want to finish it out."
The Defenders never trailed Rudyard (18-3) after a 16-2 run snapped a 4-4 tie late in the first quarter. The Bulldogs did cut the lead to 20-16 with 7:13 left in the first half, but Tri-unity scored 16 of the next 19 points for a 36-19 halftime lead. The lead reached 54-34 with four minutes to go in the game.
While Keeler said he believed all along the team was a Finals contender, co-captain Austin Treece, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, said there was pressure to meet lofty goals.
"For sure," he said. "There is always pressure, but we just play bigger. We do a great job because I think we're a hungry team."
Co-captain Jaden Ophoff, who had six rebounds, two assists, two steals and four points, said the team has never felt distracted from its goal of playing in East Lansing. Beating Rudyard was just another step, he said.
"We didn't know what to expect from them, coming from the Upper Peninsula," he said. "We were able to adjust to them."
Tri-unity junior guard Brad Titus was virtually unstoppable. He scored 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting while adding four rebounds, six assists and six steals. Titus, who started as a freshman two years ago on a Division 4 semifinalist, said he's heard about playing in a championship game for years.
"This is really big, a blessing. I love it," he said. "We went two years ago, but we were cut short two years ago. It's great to be going."
Rudyard coach Jim Suggitt said Titus, who averages 22 points and four assists per game, was the difference.
"We tried to trade for their point guard, but Mark wouldn't buy it. I told him we'd even throw in the team bus, but he wouldn't go for it," Suggitt said. "He was the best ballplayer on the floor. He could take over whenever he wanted to."
Rudyard's E.J. Suggitt, who finished with 19 points, said the game plan was to keep Titus in check.
"We wanted to stop (him)," Suggitt said. "But even if you stop him, their role players will step up. They are a very tough team; they just played better basketball."
Keeler thinks Titus has played well enough in his career to be at least a two-time all-stater. He's thrilled Titus will have the chance to join his teammates in a championship game.
"The numbers (of past championship game trips) don't matter because this is a whole new group," Keeler said. "It's exciting for them, and it's something they will always remember. They've heard from other players we've had what it's like. It's a thrill."
PHOTOS: (Top) Tri-unity Christian's Aidan DeKlyen pulls up for a shot in front of the Rudyard bench Thursday at Van Andel Arena. (Middle) The Defenders' Brady Titus was the game's high scorer with 28 points. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
A review of Harbor Light Christian’s boys basketball rosters over the last couple of decades would show a lot of familiar names.
That would be especially true of the coaching slots.
Or are the players now coaches?
The coaches’ names are extremely familiar, and nothing much has changed – except some of the former players are now coaches, and the head coaches have returned to assist the program.
Today, the head coach is Jason Roussin. He’s in his 12th season at the helm of the Swordsmen. Jeff Jakeway, who was the head coach during Roussin’s junior and senior seasons at Harbor Light, is back on the Swordsmen’s staff as an assistant coach. Roussin is also assisted by long-time coach William Henagan and previous head coach Clark Hewitt.
Hewitt also serves as the Harbor Light junior varsity coach. The JV squad went 19-1 this season and 18-2 the year before.
“In 38 years, really there’s been three consistent coaches and then Pat Collins who had done one year when the program started, and now we’re all back on the sidelines working together,” Roussin said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The facilities Collins, Hewitt and Jakeway coached in are nothing like the Swordsmen have today – the newly-built Solid Rock Center in Harbor Springs. In fact, they used to play on a cement floor. A year ago, the Swordsmen played their first game in their new home.
A walk around the facility, five years in the making, provides the feeling of more like a small college program’s setup. Along with the new gym, the Solid Rock Center was equipped with a cafe and concession area, locker rooms, a film lounge and hangout area for the players, an upper-level full track around the gym, and three classrooms for art, music, science and more.
Jakeway served as project manager on the building — fully funded and debt-free through community support. He was the head coach of the Harbor Light girls basketball team when the facility opened.
Harbor Light’s boys suffered a 76-74 loss to hot-shooting Pellston in the facility’s first game Jan. 20, 2023, but haven’t been doing much losing since. The Swordsmen started this season 2-2, and after a heart-breaking loss to Traverse City Christian on Dec. 8 went on to share the Northern Lights Conference title with Alanson and have built that record to 20-4 heading into tonight’s District Final against St. Ignace.
The title game will be played at the Solid Rock Center. Another Jakeway, Jeff Jakeway’s son and freshman point guard Landon, will be getting his second chance to lead the Swordsmen to a District championship. He was the point guard as a seventh grader when Harbor Light won the District title two years ago. (Small schools like Harbor Light may request, for most sports, an MHSAA Executive Committee waiver to play eighth-grade students if the school’s enrollment is less than 125 and seventh-graders if the enrollment is less than 75. Harbor Light’s enrollment count for this school year is 61.)
Landon Jakeway is the team’s leading scorer, contributing 15 points per game. He scored 25 to lead the Swordsmen to a 67-31 win over Mackinaw City in Wednesday’s District Semifinal. That was Harbor Light’s third win this season over its league rival, allowing the Swordsmen to keep the Mack Light Ball, which goes to the winning team’s school after each victory in the rivalry. Wins over Mackinaw have been hard to come by in previous seasons.
David Chamberlin, at 13 points per game, and Corin Palus, scoring nine per contest, are the other leading scorers. Jakeway adds seven assists and four steals per game. Chamberlin kicks in seven rebounds per game, and Jackson Mesner and Kirk Rose contribute eight and five rebounds, respectively.
Chamberlin, Paulis, Mesner and Rose are all seniors.
“The team goal was really to ‘put the team before me’ mentality,” Roussin said. “We were going to work as a team, be loyal, be committed to one another and battle together.”
The Swordsmen also entered the season with their eyes on the Mack Light Ball, a conference championship and a long postseason run.
“We wanted to chase the conference and to battle for a District,” Roussin noted. “Obviously, we knew St. Ignace is in there and they are the favorite team.”
Senior leadership has been one of the keys to Harbor Light’s finishing atop the conference for the first time in more than a decade.
“We want to show up and play the best basketball you can to make your team the best they can,” Roussin said. “That’s what has been awesome with the leadership we’ve had on this team.
“Through all the guys is ‘it is not about me,’” Roussin continued. “It is about ‘what can I do to make the team better?’”
St. Ignace brings a 16-6 record into the Solid Rock Center. The Saints will have a chance to view some NBA history in addition to playing the final.
Above the main gym resides a mini court containing the Detroit Pistons floor from the Pontiac Silverdome. Before moving to The Palace of Auburn Hills, and most recently Little Caesars Arena, the Pistons played at the Silverdome from 1978-88.
Jeff Jakeway was able to get the court to Northern Michigan through connections in Novi.
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Harbor Light’s Vaughn Henagan (23) gets to the basket during a 59-39 win over Kinross Maplewood Baptist on Dec. 21. (Middle) David Chamberlin (22) elevates over a Pellston defender as the Swordsmen work toward a 75-20 victory Jan. 19. (Photos by Billy Mac Photos.)