Breslin Bound: Boys District Preview

March 3, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Picking the teams to beat in the MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament has been particularly difficult this winter. It appears there are plenty of favorites to go around.

We’ll begin to find out if that’s true when Districts begin tonight all over the state – and know for sure when we see which teams end up at Michigan State’s Breslin Center for Finals weekend on March 20.

Follow as the teams advance on Below are some that could reach the final 16 lines of those brackets.

Class A

Detroit Pershing (18-2) – It’s hard to believe Pershing hasn’t won Class A since 2009 since the Doughboys always seem to be in the mix. They came back from a two-point loss to Detroit Southeastern at the end of January to beat Southeastern – the reigning Class A runner-up – 57-56 in the Detroit Public School League Tournament Final. Pershing also has impressive wins over Ypsilanti, Detroit Douglass (twice) and Illinois’ Chicago Orr and Morgan Park. Center Justin Tillman, a 6-foot-7 force in the paint, is a Mr. Basketball candidate.

Detroit U-D Jesuit (17-2) – The Cubs tied for the Detroit Catholic League regular-season championship but cruised through the tournament with wins of 50, 28 and 16 points, respectively. They followed with a 10-point win over reigning Class A champion Romulus. U-D Jesuit would win its first Regional title and Quarterfinal on the way if it makes it to Breslin. Considering that could mean defeating both Pershing and Southeastern, it's a tall task that would be considered an even more impressive accomplishment.

Muskegon (20-0) – This is a football school, right? Not entirely anymore given the Big Reds’ basketball success over the last two seasons. Muskegon has improved from 11-11 in 2011-12 in 19-7 and a Quarterfinal run last season to perfection heading into this tournament. Guard Deshaun Thrower, the quarterback that led the football team back to Ford Field this fall, is a Mr. Basketball candidate. Teammate Deyonta Davis could be in 2015. Aside from winning the O-K Black title, the Big Reds have impressive wins over Saginaw Arthur Hill, Mount Clemens and Illinois’ Chicago Curie among others.  

Ypsilanti (18-2) – The Grizzlies' only Southeastern Conference loss came to rival Ypsilanti Lincoln in mid-January and was avenged with a 12-point win a month later. Ypsilanti also fell to Pershing by three in December, but owns an eight-point win over a strong Detroit Southeastern team. Ypsilanti won its first Regional title last winter since 1981, but looks to have a good shot at making it two in a row, although the road could include Lincoln again plus Romulus and tough Westland John Glenn among others. Senior center Jaylen Johnson is a mobile 6-9 force and Mr. Basketball candidate.

Class B

Detroit Country Day (13-7) – It’s nearly impossible to not mention the reigning Class B champion, even if the Yellowjackets’ record is a bit down from the usual at the end of the regular season. But consider that Country Day is on an 8-1 run, its losses are against some strong opponents including Detroit Consortium and Class A Romulus and Walled Lake Western, and it features Mr. Basketball candidate Edmond Sumner, a 6-5 guard and scorer. Oh, and Country Day avenged that Consortium loss with a one-point win three weeks later.

Grand Rapids South Christian (19-1) – The Sailors have been MHSAA title contenders in seemingly every sport lately, and that’s grown to include boys hoops. After finishing 13-9 a year ago, South Christian fell this year only once, by three points, to O-K Gold runner-up Wayland. South Christian then won the rematch by 10 and also owns nice wins over Holland Christian and East Kentwood – although undefeated Wyoming Godwin Heights (see below) is a likely District opponent this week.

Jackson Lumen Christi (19-1) – The Titans have been building toward a run at their first Semifinals appearance since 1975 after reaching the Quarterfinal last season and falling in that game by only three points. Their only loss this winter was by five two weeks ago to Class A Lansing Waverly, a team Lumen Christi beat by seven earlier this season. The Titans also this season avenged 2012-13 losses to Flint Powers Catholic and rival Jackson, beating the latter twice.

Wyoming Godwin Heights (20-0) – The Wolverines haven’t lost since last season’s Class B Semifinals at Breslin Center. They beat solid Holland to cap the regular season after romping through the O-K Silver with only three of 14 games decided by single digits. But any potential run will have to go through Grand Rapids South Christian (see above) in the District.

Class C

Boyne City (18-1) – The Ramblers haven’t advanced to the season’s final week since 1990, but have looked up the challenge cruising through the Lake Michigan Conference undefeated after finishing 11-11 overall a year ago. The tough part this week likely will come in leading off the District tonight against league rival Elk Rapids, which Boyne City beat by three and then 12 earlier this season. Charlevoix also could be a tough out despite its 6-13 record – the Ramblers beat the Rayders by only four and six (in overtime) during the regular season.

Detroit Consortium (16-2) – Consortium has won Regional titles two of the last three seasons and just missed making it farther a year ago, falling by two in the Quarterfinal to eventual Class C champion Flint Beecher. The Cougars’ slate of wins this season includes many of the best from the Detroit PSL, including Southeastern and Douglass, plus wins over Class A Saginaw, Romulus, Saginaw Arthur Hill, and Class B Country Day. The lone losses were in a rematch against Country Day, by a point, and by two to Class A contender Pershing.

Mount Clemens (19-1) – It’s fair to call the Battling Bathers the favorites since the start of this season, or at least one of a few, and they haven’t fallen below that expectation. Mount Clemens won the Macomb Area Conference Gold title by four games after taking on a number of Class A schools including Detroit Martin Luther King and Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills during the season's first month. Only undefeated Class A Muskegon was able to give the Bathers a loss this winter.

Negaunee (19-1) – The Miners have reached at least the Quarterfinals the last three seasons and fell to Laingsburg in last season’s Semifinal by only two points. The only loss this season came in December to Class A Marquette, and was avenged with a six-point win three weeks ago. Negaunee played the biggest and many of the best in the Upper Peninsula and handed rival Ishpeming its only two losses in the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference – which Negaunee won.

Class D

Bellaire (20-0) – The Eagles faced only a few bumps in rolling to a flawless regular season record, needing a two-point win over second-place Mancelona and a three-pointer over third-place Onaway on Thursday to claim the Ski Valley Conference title outright. But perfection is nothing new to this bunch; Bellaire’s only loss last season came to Frankfort in the Regional Final, and the Eagles were perfect until the Quarterfinal in 2011-12.

Peck (18-0) – The Pirates’ success during their 8-player football championship run apparently is carrying over to basketball. Or maybe it was the basketball team’s success that carried over to football – the Pirates’ hoops team made its Regional Final last season before falling to eventual MHSAA Semifinalist Lansing Christian. Peck’s three single-digit games this winter came against rival Kingston and Class B Armada and Richmond. 

Powers North Central (20-0) – Coming off its first MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 1985, North Central has crushed most of its competition this winter with 11 wins by 30 or more points. Only Skyline Conference foe Carney-Nadeau and Munising got within single digits of the Jets, and no opponent did so before February. Carney-Nadeau does also play in the same District, however, after falling to North Central by only a point in their rematch.

Southfield Christian (19-1) – The back-to-back reigning champion looks good to go for three, losing only to Class A contender Saginaw Arthur Hill this season while beating Walled Lake Western and Detroit Community among solid bigger opponents. The Eagles haven’t allowed an opponent within single digits since Allen Park Inter-City Baptist (14-6) on Jan. 10.

PHOTO: Detroit Consortium found the rim plenty during a 66-38 win over Jenison at the Breslin Center in December, and hopes to return to East Lansing at the end of this month. (Click to see more fromHigh School Sports Scene.) 

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.)