Branstrom-Led Mid Pen Built to Play Big

January 10, 2018

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA - Mark Branstrom was a prolific scorer when he played at Perkins High School more than 40 years ago.

Now, as coach of the Mid Peninsula Wolverines – the consolidated school that grew out of Perkins and Rock high schools in 1977 – defense has been the calling card for Branstrom as he tries to overcome the odds and put his players into competitive positions.

"It might look ugly. We are not as good as anybody else but we can play defense with anybody," Branstrom said about developing an approach that gives Mid Pen – with just seven players on the varsity – a good chance to hang around against better teams with deeper rosters.

Branstrom became Mid Pen's coach in 1984-85, sitting out the 2007-09 seasons for health reasons. The Wolverines are off to a tough start this winter at 0-6, still searching for their first win and with a couple of close losses. But against heavy odds, he has guided Mid Pen to a pair of Class D District titles and one Regional championship and was selected Upper Peninsula Class D Coach of the Year in 2015-16.

That happens through diligent practice sessions, made easier perhaps because Branstrom has also served as junior varsity coach the past four years.

"Everyone knows their job," said Damian Richmond, a former player now with the revived program at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba. "He makes sure everyone is in their spot. He runs plays over and over in practice."

Branstrom, who has coached all three of his sons during his tenure, adopts a buddy-buddy approach with some players and serves as a father-son figure as well, according to Richmond. "He took me under his wing," said Richmond, who indicated Branstrom played a vital role in his decision to play college basketball after graduating from high school in 2016.

Branstrom's youngest son, Brett, is Mid Pen's all-time scoring (1,785) and rebounding (1,328) leader, a two-time Class D all-stater and later four-year regular at Northern Michigan University. He supplanted his brother Carl (1,161 points) as scoring leader. A sister, Hunter, scored 1,019 points. A third brother, Marcus, also played for his dad.

Mark Branstrom holds the scoring record at the former Perkins school, scoring 1,451 points for the Yellowjackets, who played in one of the smallest gyms in the state – typical of that day and age.

"The basketball floor is my element," said Branstrom. "I enjoy every aspect of it, and then I have the kids who respond. I get to teach (young) people who are like a sponge.

"There is never a time since I went into coaching that I did not think we had a chance to win, even against (three-time Class D champion) North Central these last few years."

That was underlined in a recent game at Rapid River, which had halted North Central's state-record 84-game win streak Dec. 7. Mid Pen led much of the first half, using tough defense and a patient offense with Branstrom adroitly guiding everything from the sideline. That lasted until the Rockets settled in and scored the final nine points of the half en route to a 67-41 victory.

"The hardest thing is to get them to communicate on the floor defensively," said Branstrom. "It is like a musical for me to sit there and watch them when they communicate on defense."

Rick Pepin, now Rapid River athletic director but a former coaching opponent of Branstrom, knew what he was getting into against the Wolverines.

"He's always done a great job forcing tempo to fit his style. He never lets his kids play outside of their ability," said Pepin after that recent game in Rapid River.

Branstrom, who has mellowed considerably in recent years, now understands another side of coaching better. "Everything happens for a reason," he said, recalling his earlier days when he was prowling the sidelines with a hot temper.

"I get along with people a lot better (now). There is so much more to basketball than just basketball," he said with a twinkle in his eye. He said long-time basketball referee Dave St. Onge of Marquette was a factor in that change, telling him once "you've got to enjoy this."

Coaching the jayvees has also helped in that adjustment. "It is energizing to the point it has made me a better coach at the next level," he said. "This year I've literally had to collect kids just to have a jayvee team (three of the starting five are in their first year of basketball)."

That underscores why he has stayed on the sidelines. "It is for the love of it. I extremely enjoy it," Branstrom said. "I'm doing something for the kids."

His two teams will practice together, and varsity players will serve as assistant coaches.

The response of his players has kept Branstrom motivated to be in the gym and handle the extensive travel during the winter. His family also lived briefly in Coldwater and White Pine before finally settling in Perkins prior to high school, and he said a childhood friend in White Pine was a big influence.

Ward Helakoski is the son of Ed Helakoski, who directed Chassell to a then-state record 65 straight wins and three consecutive Class D basketball titles in the 1950s. Young Helakoski was a good all-around athlete and excellent student. "He helped me out considerably. My grades improved and I stayed eligible," Branstrom said, adding, "I dedicated myself to basketball when we moved to Perkins because we had no football."

He has remained dedicated, to the sport and to his players, through all the ups and downs of his profession. "I won't leave," he said. "I think I do a pretty decent job. If I wasn't, I would leave. You have to be dedicated to the kids, and I am extremely dedicated and loyal to the kids.

"I love Class D basketball. We have one of the best Class D (basketball) conferences in the state. The competitive level is to the point where the level of play has gotten so good."

However, he has seen how declining enrollments impact the game, noting the 67 students at Mid Pen face Class D schools with enrollments just shy of the Class C level. "Getting to twice or three times the enrollment levels in the same class is not good," said Branstrom.

More than a dozen U.P. schools have enrollments below 80 students. But those are the kind of challenges that also motivate Branstrom and his athletes. Branstrom also was cross country coach for the Mid Pen boys and girls teams last fall, guiding the girls to a Division 3 runner-up finish in the Upper Peninsula.

He believes the farming, rural community is beneficial in the work ethic displayed by many U.P. athletes. "They seem to work harder," he said, noting their academic and athletic endeavors seem to confirm that observation.

Pepin recalls his battles against the Wolverines. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Branstrom," he said. "I watched him coach in the (lopsided) jayvee game (last week) and he never gave up, he never stopped coaching. He took every advantage to teach that team."

Pepin noted Branstrom was also teaching character and pride during that game. "Those are important character traits for life," he said.

"He has never given up on his community, his school, his student athletes. When Mark Branstrom is coaching our kids, they are better off. He makes your team play four quarters because he inspires his kids to play hard."

Basketball has obviously changed since Branstrom led the Upper Peninsula in scoring in 1974-75, with the inception of the 3-point shooting arc primary. "The mid-range game is not there anymore," said Branstrom, who worked that area of the floor.  "In pick-up games and practices, they want to shoot those threes, and that has changed everything.

"The two-point shot is still worth so much more. The threes make it a more exciting game to come back (from a deficit), but it takes away from the scenario of the inside-out game. I like the mixture. I'm not for it, but I deal with it."

Dealing with players has also changed during his tenure, as he noted he could not coach today the way he did earlier in his career. "You've got to roll with the flow," he said, which includes adjusting to evolving basketball strategy and how a coach and player communicate. "If you don't change, you don't belong there," he said.

Branstrom has adjusted through the years and shows every night he is totally involved with the game and his players.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Coach Mark Branstrom of Rock Mid Peninsula talks to his varsity during a timeout at a recent game in Rapid River. Branstrom, who is also the junior varsity coach, has just seven boys on his varsity team. (Middle) Branstrom directs his team to back off on the tempo as the Wolverines bring the ball up court against the Rockets. Branstrom has been the Mid Pen coach since 1984-85 after playing at Perkins High School, which consolidated with Rock High School in 1978 to become Mid Pen. (Below) Branstrom applauds his team prior to pre-game introductions. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)

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.)