Bellaire, McBain Follow Longtime Leaders

March 22, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Stan Sexton and Bruce Koopman have been down this road before.

When Bellaire rallied to edge Buckley last Wednesday, it was the Eagles’ sixth MHSAA Class D Regional basketball championship since 2000 under Sexton.

When McBain knocked off Tawas that same night, it was the Ramblers’ sixth Class C Regional title since 2002 under Koopman.

Now, the two coaches are one win away from leading their programs to a fourth Final Four appearance at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.

In tonight’s Quarterfinals, Bellaire (24-1) faces Fulton (18-6) at Traverse City West while McBain (25-0) takes on Ishpeming Westwood (12-12) at Petoskey.

It should come as no surprise that McBain and Bellaire are still in the mix this last week of the season.

The Ramblers graduated just two seniors off a 22-3 squad that lost in the Quarterfinals to Boyne City last March.

“Having gone through those wars last year and having that experience back has paid huge dividends,” Koopman said.

Sexton can say the same. He returned a solid nucleus from a 19-4 team that lost in the Districts to Boyne Falls.

“We had a good team last year,” Sexton said, “but we could get rattled in tight games. We’ve really developed some poise and confidence this season.”

That was evident Wednesday when the Eagles withstood the pressure to pull out a hard-fought 61-57 victory over Buckley.

“That’s coach’s favorite word - poise, poise, poise,” junior Gabe Meriwether said after the victory. “He wants us to be calm and collected (on the court), to play stable and confident basketball. That’s what we did, and that’s why we won.”

McBain had it a little easier, downing Tawas 63-36 with point guard Garett Gugle leading the way with 19 points. He hit five 3-pointers.

Now, Gugle said, the Ramblers need to stay focused. And the sting from last season’s Quarterfinal loss should act as motivation, he said.

“At this point, everyone is even,” Gugle said. “They’re (Westwood) undefeated in the postseason, we’re undefeated.”

Playing on the big stage in March has become a tradition for both Bellaire and McBain.

The Ramblers won the 2002 Class C title with a lineup that included current Ferris State basketball coach Andy Bronkema, former NFL defensive end Dan Bazuin, and Trent Mulder, an all-Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference pitcher at Northwood.

This, however, is Koopman’s first team to reach the Quarterfinals undefeated. The 2002 squad lost two games – to eventual Class D champ Wyoming Tri-unity Christian and to Class A Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern – in a holiday tournament at Cornerstone University. Those losses, Koopman said, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“We never lost after that,” Koopman said. “That taught us we had to be tougher, more physical. Had we not played in that tournament, I don’t think we would have won (the Class C title).”

So how does this team compare to the 2002 squad?

“I don’t know if you can compare teams because there are so many variables,” he said. “I can tell you this, if this team wins another game or two, regardless if they win it all, they deserve to be mentioned in the top two or three during my time here.”

Bellaire came as close as a team can come to winning an MHSAA crown in 2005, only to be denied by Detroit Rogers 71-68 on a miraculous four-point play with 1.6 seconds left in overtime. The Eagles, led by brothers Brandon and Michael McClary, reached the Final Four three times in a four-year span. The McClarys went on to play at Olivet College where Michael became the school’s all-time leading scorer.

The players on this Bellaire team still remember those days.

“When we were younger we looked up to the McClarys when those teams were making their Breslin runs,” senior leader Hayden Niepoth said. “We saw that, and now we want to copy it.”

“They’ll ask, ‘Are we as good as the team of ’05?’” Sexton added. “We (coaches) have to say we don’t have any McClarys on this team, but we have some very good basketball players. We have that important trait the ’05 team had – we’re a team. We play together, we support each other.”

Sexton, who was inducted into the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame in 2011, is in his 27th season as the varsity coach. He did a three-year stint from 1978-81, stepped down and then took the job again in 1992. During that span, he’s posted a 493-139 record, a 78 percent win mark.

Koopman is finishing his 22nd season as McBain’s varsity coach. He’s also won 78 percent of his games, compiling a 407-116 record.

To make it even sweeter, Sexton, 74, and Koopman, 50, are coaching at the same schools they attended.

Sexton’s backstory, though, is quite different than most. He did not play sports in high school. And he certainly wasn’t thinking of a coaching career until Bellaire’s head basketball coach Ed Stoneburner approached him one day at school.

“I was teaching fourth grade at the time,” Sexton recalled. “Ed came up and said, ‘I need a fifth and sixth grade basketball coach.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ He said, ‘That’s all right. We’ll teach you.’”

That was in 1971. To this day, Stoneburner’s influence is part of Sexton’s philosophy.

“What I really took from him was to play this game aggressively,” Sexton said. “Play it hard, play it with intensity. That’s what we preach and I think it shows, especially in our defense.”

Sexton also watched and learned from some of the area’s best coaches – Maple City Glen Lake’s Don Miller, Leland’s Larry Glass, Traverse City’s Jim Anderson and Central Lake’s Gary Johnson, among others.

“I’d pay my two or three dollars to get in, and I’d watch these guys coach,” Sexton said.

He would also pore over the boxscores that were published in the newspaper in those days. One line that caught his attention – team fouls.

“I noticed Glen Lake would always have 8, 9, 10 fouls and the other team would have 18, 19, 20 – with guys fouling out,” Sexton said. “Fouling is poor defense. When you’re sending people to the line you’re giving them a 70 percent chance (to score). That’s what impressed me about Glen Lake. You could see the discipline in Don’s teams.”

Sexton, who also coached girl’ varsity basketball for two years and the baseball team for nearly 20, is aided by a veteran coaching staff that includes Paul Koepke, Jeff Smith and George Mason. All three have been with him for years.

“Great coaches,” he said. “They bring a lot to the game.”

Koopman, meanwhile, played basketball at McBain under Hall of Fame coach Bruce Brumels in the early 1980s. After graduating, he spent a year working in a factory in Cadillac before enrolling at Central Michigan University.

Four years later in 1989, it was Brumels, then the principal, who hired Koopman as a teacher.

“I was very fortunate,” he said. “Everything fell into place.”

Koopman coached junior varsity basketball for five years under Steve Anderson before taking over the boys varsity program in 1994. In addition, he coached girls basketball from 1990-98 and again from 2003-07. He stepped down soon after the girls season switched to the winter. At that time, he also took on the boys JV coaching duties to go with the varsity.

Koopman cites two reasons for his program’s continued success – community support and great players.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Great players make good coaches.”

Perhaps another reason is that McBain starts initiating interest in basketball early on. Right after Koopman was hired, the school instituted a co-ed basketball program for elementary students in grades 3-6. It runs seven consecutive Saturdays, starting in January.

“We had close to 140 kids involved this year,” Koopman said.

The elementary program dovetails into the middle school, the feeder program for the high school. Interest has remained strong. Koopman said 29 players tried out for JV basketball this season.

Koopman – who was mentored by Brumels, Anderson and former girls coach Dale Marie DeZeeuw – brings an “old school” approach to coaching. His practices start with defensive drills, followed by rebounding drills.

 “We have some practices where that’s all we do,” Gugle said.

After that comes the offensive drills, where once again discipline is required.

“I’m all about patience, working the ball and looking for that good shot,” Koopman said.

His players get the point.

“He likes the basics,” Gugle said. “Nothing fancy.”

Craig Sterk, a 6-foot-7 junior who “plays everywhere,” leads the Ramblers, averaging 15.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Cole Powell, a 6-3 senior, and Logan Eling, a 5-10 junior, average better than 14 points per outing. Powell is in his fourth year on varsity.

“We have experience, balance and depth,” Koopman said. “We defend pretty well. We rebound pretty well.”

Gugle is in his second season running the point. That experience is invaluable, Koopman said.

“That’s another reason we’re better,” he said. “Whatever teams throw at us doesn’t faze him. He handles it and get us into our offense. He doesn’t look to score, but (Wednesday night) they were leaving him open and he was popping ‘em.”

It’s been an exciting winter for Koopman. His oldest daughter, Michaela, played on the girls varsity team, which advanced to the Regional Finals. His son, Jarrett, is a sophomore on the boys varsity.

The Ramblers were taken to the wire twice during the regular season – both in games outside the Highland Conference. A Jimmy Schneider 3-pointer at the buzzer beat Big Rapids, a Class B quarterfinalist, on the road early in the season. Then a Sterk 3-pointer in the waning seconds forced overtime in a late season win at Frankfort.

Bellaire’s only setback came early in the season to a red-hot East Jordan team, which won the Lake Michigan Conference.

The Eagles ran the table in the Ski Valley, handing Johannesburg-Lewiston its only two regular-season losses. Bellaire also downed Onaway, a Class D quarterfinalist, twice. The Eagles’ tournament resume includes wins over Boyne Falls, Frankfort and Buckley.

“It means a lot (to win a Regional),” Niepoth said. “But we’re not done. We don’t want to just get to the quarters, we want to get to the Breslin, and we want to win at the Breslin. That’s our goal. We just have to keep working and getting better every day.”

Meriwether and Niepoth are the catalysts for the Eagles, averaging 18 and 14 points per game, respectively. Niepoth is also the team’s defensive stopper and assists leader.

“He plays both ends of the court,” Sexton said.

Jamal Lockhart provided some big plays in the win over Buckley, scoring 14 in the low post.

But that’s history now. It’s all about the present and tonight’s Quarterfinals.

“Anybody can beat anybody at this stage,” Meriwether said. “It’s survive and advance.”

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) Gabe Meriwether dunks for Bellaire against Fife Lake Forest Area, while McBain’s Cole Powell works for position in the post against Tawas. (Middle) McBain coach Bruce Koopman, far left, stands with his team after its Regional championship win. (Below) Bellaire’s Hayden Niepoth drives to the hoop against Mancelona. (Bellaire photos courtesy of Michael Smith and The Antrim Review; McBain photos courtesy of Marc Vieau and The Cadillac News.)

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.)