Benton Harbor Wait Ends in OT Thriller

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 24, 2018

EAST LANSING – Carlos Johnson knew it was good when it left his hand. His Benton Harbor coaches and teammates knew it, too.

The star sophomore hit the biggest shot on a Saturday night full of them – a 3-pointer with 10 seconds to play – to give the Tigers a 65-64 overtime win against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Class B championship game.

As the final seconds expired, the northwest corner of Breslin Center began celebrating Benton Harbor’s first MHSAA boys basketball title since 1965.

“I was hoping (senior Elijah Baxter) would get me the ball for the last one,” Johnson said. “I passed it to him, and I was like, ‘Oh, I hope he passes it back.’ I was ready for the shot, and I knew it was gonna go in. I was just thinking to go for the kill the whole time. When it left my hand, my eyes lit up and I said, ‘Oh, that’s going in. Straight water.’”

The shot, and an ensuing, frantic defensive stop, sent the Benton Harbor bench and cheering section into hysterics as they celebrated a long awaited return to glory for a program that was among the state’s most dominant more than a half century ago.

It was a history the Tigers embraced, wearing shirts for warm-ups that read, “Farnum Boyz” an homage to their gymnasium and its namesake, former Benton Harbor coach Don Farnum, who led the team to back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965.

“It means a lot to the program, it means a lot to the school system, and it means a lot to the city,” Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said. “This is going to bring us together, this community. Everything is going to go forward now, thanks to these awesome guys right here. They brought the city back. We’re going to go forward from now on and stay positive with one another.”

While a star sophomore led the way with 24 points, 11 rebounds and the game-winning shot, Benton Harbor is otherwise a senior-dominated team, with five playing a major role. And those seniors had been pointing to winning this title since they were in eighth grade – the last time the Tigers made the Class B Final and came up just short in 2014.

“It means a lot to us, because previously it was a weight on our shoulders that it had been so long, but it was a big motivation,” senior guard Dennie Brown said. “Since we were (youngsters) in fourth grade and middle school, we said we were going to win. We didn’t want to be too cocky; we wanted to be humble also with it. We put the pedal to the metal and worked in practice every day.”

The Tigers trailed for most of the four-minute overtime session, and were down 64-62 when Johnson collected a rebound with less than 20 seconds to play. When he got the ball near the top of the 3-point line, he saw his defender backing off him and let the winning shot fly.

“The feeling of it, I can’t even describe it,” Johnson said. “It was just like everything just came to me. I looked up and all I could see was nothing but the lights and Michigan State, and I was like, ‘Oh God, I did that.’”

The game-winner wasn’t the only do-or-die shot with the clock winding down for the Tigers on the night. Senior Shawn Hopkins hit another just to get what was already a back-and-forth contest to overtime.

As Baxter lost control of the ball driving down the lane during the closing seconds of regulation, he saved it from going out of bounds and found Hopkins cutting to the basket. Hopkins avoided the shot-blocking attempt of 6-foot-8 Catholic Central senior Jacob Polakovich to hit a layup and tie the game at 55 as the buzzer sounded.

“I was just thinking be aggressive trying to get to the rim, hopefully draw a foul and get to the line,” Baxter said. “It didn’t go that way, but it’s the state championship game, so you have to show heart and hustle, so I just kept going and trying to save it. Shawn was just in the right spot. It was like a brother thing; he just knew to cut to the rim while I was going out of bounds.”

Hopkins finished with nine points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers (27-1), while TJ Jones had 10 points and Devan Nichols added nine. Baxter dished out six assists to go with his seven points.

Catholic Central (24-3) hit its fair share of big shots down the stretch as well. Junior Darrell Belcher hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put his team up 54-51. He hit another big 3 in overtime to give the Cougars a four-point lead with about two minutes to play. Michigan State-bound senior Marcus Bingham also hit a big 3-pointer in overtime to give the Cougars an early lead.

Belcher and Bingham each finished with 21 points, and Bingham added 13 rebounds. Polakovich added 12 points and 12 rebounds.

But in the immediate aftermath of the loss, disappointment was overshadowing those great performances for Catholic Central.

“It was a really tough way for us to end our season,” Catholic Central coach TJ Meerman said. “I just told our guys, we just got out of the locker room, and I just spent a few minutes telling them how thankful I am, how thankful our staff is, how thankful our school is to have young men like we have up on stage in front of you.

“The game didn’t end the way we wanted it to. We battled, we battled all year long. I’m proud of our guys, and congratulations to Benton Harbor on a big win.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Benton Harbor’s Carlos Johnson (11) blocks a shot during Saturday night’s Class B championship game. (Middle) The Tigers’ Shawn Hopkins looks for an open teammate. 

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.)