A-B Preview: Ready to Make History

March 23, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Dating back more than 90 years, the MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament allows us to conjure up “first time since” statements that truly speak to the event’s lengthy and rich history.

Three of eight Class A and B semifinalists this weekend are playing for first championships – including Clarkston, often one of the best in Michigan but frequently just a few wins short of that first title. But also in this weekend’s field are Grand Rapids Christian, playing for its first title since 1938, and Benton Harbor playing for its first since 1965. Ludington last played in an MHSAA Final in 1953. River Rouge won more recently, in 1999, but is best known for its 12 championships over 19 seasons from 1954-72.

Semifinals for Class A and B are Friday at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, with all four championship games Saturday.

Semifinals – Friday
Class A

West Bloomfield (17-8) vs. Clarkston (25-1), 1 p.m. 
Grand Rapids Christian (26-0) vs. Romulus (21-4), 2:50 p.m.

Class B
New Haven (25-1) vs. Benton Harbor (22-3), 6 p.m. 
River Rouge (24-1) vs. Ludington (24-2), 7:50 p.m.

Finals - Saturday
Class A - Noon
Class B - 6:30 p.m.
Class C - 4:30 p.m. 
Class D - 10 a.m.

Tickets cost $8 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session. All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.

And now, a look at the semifinalists in Class A and B. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.) The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

Class A

25-1, Tied for No. 3
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red
Coach: Dan Fife, 35th season (675-169)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 68-48 over No. 5 Macomb Dakota in the Regional Semifinal, 60-47 over No. 7 Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 57-51 over honorable mention Romulus, 59-48 and 68-61 over West Bloomfield.
Players to watch: Foster Loyer, 6-0 jr. G (25.1 ppg, 6.4 apg); Dylan Alderson, 6-5 sr. F (23.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
Outlook: Clarkston is in the Semifinals for the first time since 2009 seeking the first championship game berth of its storied history. Fife entered this season ranked fourth in MHSAA history for coaching wins, and the Wolves have totaled more than 20 in four straight seasons while winning District titles in 23 of the last 24. His leader on the court, Loyer, already has committed to play at Michigan State after high school, and Alderson has signed with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The lone loss was by four to Southfield Arts & Technology on Feb. 17, and Clarkston has won all but one game since by at least 20 points.

26-0, No. 1
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold
Coach: Mark Warners, seventh season (116-45)
Championship history: Class B (Lower Peninsula) champion 1938, Class B (Lower Peninsula) runner-up 1939.
Best wins: 66-46 (Quarterfinal) and 53-51 (OT) over No. 8 Kalamazoo Central, 59-56 (Regional Final) and 57-49 over No. 9 Holland West Ottawa, 64-26 over No. 3 Muskegon in the Regional Semifinal, 71-49 over Class B No. 9 Wayland, 72-58 over Class B No. 1 Wyoming Godwin Heights.
Players to watch: Xavier Tillman, 6-8 sr. F (13.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 4.1 bpg); Duane Washington, Jr., 6-3 jr. G (11.9 ppg, 4,4 apg, 49 3-pointers).
Outlook: The Eagles have played through one of the toughest paths to get to Breslin, against top-10 teams their last three games, to make their first Semifinal since 2013. As a team, Grand Rapids Christian has outrebounded opponents 37-28 on average and held them to only 42 points per game. Tillman was a Mr. Basketball Award finalist and teams with 6-7 senior James Beck II (12.9 ppg 7.0 rpg); they’re signed to play next at MSU and Oakland, respectively, while Washington is considered one of the state’s top juniors.

21-4, honorable mention
League finish: Tied for first in Western Wayne Athletic Conference Blue
Coach: Jerret Smith, fourth season (78-23)
Championship history: Class A champions 2013 and 1986, runner-up 2005.
Best wins: 66-63 over No. 6 Detroit U-D Jesuit in the Quarterfinal, 71-58 (Regional Semifinal) and 57-56 over Belleville, 73-63 over No. 9 Kalamazoo Central.
Players to watch: Kaevon Merriweather, 6-2 jr. G (19 ppg), Jaren English, 6-4 sr. F (17 ppg).
Outlook: The Eagles have tested themselves against the best this season, avenging earlier defeats against league rival Belleville and reigning Class A champion U-D Jesuit and falling also to Clarkston and River Rouge – both also semifinalists this weekend. Romulus has been a regular during the final week with eight Quarterfinal appearances over the last 13 seasons and Semifinals this decade in 2013 and 2012 as well. Six players average at least eight points a game; senior forward Dylan Price adds 16 and junior center Darius Lundy 10.

17-8, unranked
League finish: Tied for third in the OAA Red
Coach: Jeremy Denha, seventh season (84-66)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 80-43 (Quarterfinal) and 64-61 over Troy, 63-58 (OT) over North Farmington, 57-55 over Southfield Arts & Technology.
Players to watch: Kevin McAdoo, 6-2 sr. G (24.1 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.0 spg, 53 3-pointers); Tre Harvey, 6-2 jr. G (15.4 ppg, 56 3-pointers).
Outlook: West Bloomfield has gotten hot at the best time to make its first Semifinal since 2003 after losing three of its final four games during the regular season. The Lakers’ league does include Clarkston (above) and reigning Class A runner-up North Farmington, which no doubt helped prepare West Bloomfield to make a run. McAdoo and Harvey can put points on the board – McAdoo has a high game of 40 – and sophomore Tre Mosley also finds the basket from long range with 44 3-pointers entering the week.

Class B

22-3, No. 5
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Coach: Corey Sterling, fifth season (86-35)
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 1965), seven runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 46-44 over Spring Lake in the Quarterfinal, 60-57 over No. 9 Wayland in the Regional Final, 49-44 (OT) over Stevensville Lakeshore, 55-45 over Battle Creek Central.
Players to watch: Carlos Johnson, 6-6 fr. C (14.2 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 3.3 bpg); Roy Anderson, 6-2 sr. G (13.5 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3.6 spg).
Outlook: Benton Harbor was Class B runner-up in 2014 and is back at the Breslin for the second time in four seasons after bouncing back from two losses over its final three games. All three defeats this winter were to Class A teams, and by a combined nine points. Johnson and Anderson are just two of the standouts; junior forward Shawn Hopkins adds another 13.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, and junior guard Elijah Baxter averages 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 steals.

24-2, No. 8
League finish: Tied for first in Lakes 8 Activities Conference
Coach: Thad Shank, 15th season (235-115) 
Championship history: Class B runner-up 1953.
Best wins: 63-49 (District Quarterfinal) and 70-38 over honorable mention Big Rapids, 59-56 over Traverse City West, 60-44 over Muskegon Heights Academy.
Players to watch: Calvin Hackert, 6-0 sr. G (13.3 ppg, 3.1 apg, 45 3-pointers); Sam LaDuke, 6-3 sr. G (10.5 ppg, 30 3-pointers).
Outlook: Ludington is making the trip for its first Semifinal since 1971. The Orioles were 9-13 only two seasons ago before Shank returned after three years away from the program – he coached the girls team during that time, and both teams last winter before coaching just the boys this season. All five of his starters plus two subs average at least five points per game, and five of those seven are seniors looking to continue this finish on a high note.

25-1, No. 3
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Blue
Coach: Tedaro France II, ninth season (157-57)
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 73-66 over Detroit Osborn in the Quarterfinal, 108-104 (3OT) over Class C No. 4 Flint Beecher, 84-56 over St. Clair Shores Lake Shore, 79-50 over Warren Michigan Collegiate.
Players to watch: Eric Williams, Jr., 6-5 sr. G (20.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.8 spg); Romeo Weems, 6-6 soph. F (18.1 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 3.9 spg, 3.2 bpg).
Outlook: New Haven played in its third straight Quarterfinal on Tuesday and broke through to make the Semifinals for the first time. And the time couldn’t be more right for the Rockets; Williams is a star finishing off his career alongside Weems, arguably the top sophomore in the state. Junior 6-7 forward Ashton Sherrell adds another 11.7 points and seven rebounds per game, and total six players average at least 6.4 ppg. And of those six, four should be back next season as well.

24-1, No. 2
League finish: First in Michigan Metro Athletic Conference
Coach: Mark White, first season (24-1)
Championship history: 14 MHSAA titles (most recent 1999), five runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 54-51 over Williamston in the Quarterfinal, 78-72 over Class A honorable mention Romulus, 57-52 over West Bloomfield, 71-47 over Warren Michigan Collegiate, 62-47 over Class D No. 2 Southfield Christian.
Players to watch: Darian Owens-White, 6-1 soph. G; DreQuan Bell, 6-3 sr. G (Statistics not submitted.).
Outlook: River Rouge is one of the most storied programs in MHSAA history, and has arguably its best shot at a championship since last winning in 1999. White took over the program after formerly coaching Detroit Renaissance and Southeastern and the last eight seasons as head coach at Adrian College. This will be the program’s first Semifinal since 1999; it advanced by avenging last season’s Quarterfinal loss to Williamston.

PHOTO: River Rouge's Darian Owens-White works to get up a shot during Tuesday's Quarterfinal win over Williamston. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)