Breslin Bound: Boys Report Week 5

January 13, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

With the beginning of January comes the end of holiday basketball showcases and a switch in focus by MHSAA teams toward local opponents, conference races and the haul of the second half of the regular season.

The first week of 2015 saw the ranks of the undefeated decreased by 35 boys teams statewide to 64 remaining, with some listed below among those that caught my eye during the first days of the new year.

Class A

Alpena (6-0) – The Wildcats not only sit alone atop the Big North Conference standings as they look to repeat as champions, but avenged their two losses from last season – by 10 over Traverse City West before break and by 20 over Traverse City Central last week.  

Detroit East English (4-2) – The Bulldogs are early leaders in a Detroit Public School League East Division 1 that includes powers Pershing, Cass Tech, Martin Luther King and Southeastern; East English’s current three-game winning streak started with a big win over solid Southfield and includes a five-pointer over better-than-its-record Cass Tech from last week.  

Grand Ledge (5-0) – Last season’s somewhat-surprise Capital Area Activities Conference Blue runner-up isn’t sneaking up on anyone this winter; a strong backcourt has paced a fast start that’s included wins over Lansing Sexton on the first Friday of the season and much-improved Jackson by 15 last week.

Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (5-0) – The Trojans have bounced back from last season’s sub-.500 finish thanks in part to four wins by four or fewer points, including a 49-46 victory last week over Caledonia.

Class B

Detroit Henry Ford (7-0) – Ford is off to a strong start again this season after starting and ending strong a year ago; the Trojans look good to avoid the five-game losing streak they encountered at this time last year, although Cass Tech and Pershing are up next.

Dowagiac (4-1) – A one-point loss to Wolverine Conference West leader Paw Paw before break surely smarted a bit, but the Chieftains came back to start 2015 with a 58-55 win over rival Niles; they pick up league play Friday against Berrien Springs.

Flint Northwestern (5-0) – After struggling mightily the last two seasons, Northwestern has begun like the Northwestern of old, with a nine-point win over Midland and 37-pointer over Saginaw Heritage last week keeping the Wildcats among the undefeated.

Williamston (6-1) – Only a loss to Class A Dexter in the championship game of Coldwater’s holiday tournament has kept the Hornets from perfection – and also from beating all of their opponents by double figures as they did last week versus East Lansing and Fowlerville.  

Class C

Burton Bendle (6-0) – The Tigers are halfway to last season’s 12 wins and tied for first in the Genesee Area Conference Blue thanks in large part to a 72-67 overtime win last week over New Lothrop, last season’s league runner-up.

Detroit Loyola (5-2) – The newly-crowned Division 7 football champion has been pretty good at basketball too over the years – but has looked better than that early with its only losses by six or fewer points to much bigger Henry Ford and Detroit Renaissance.

Gwinn (4-2) – The Modeltowners have won four straight after two big losses to start and beat Houghton and Norway on back-to-back nights last week – they took the lead against Norway with 31 seconds to play on the way to winning 43-41.

Laingsburg (5-0) – The Wolfpack have made a smooth transition from coach Greg Mitchell (now at Hope College) to Dan Blemaster (formerly coach of Brown City). Laingsburg sits atop the Central Michigan Athletic Conference by a half-game over Fulton-Middleton (see below).

Class D

Fulton-Middleton (5-1) – The Pirates are right behind Laingsburg in the CMAC after having last week’s game against Bath postponed, but did open the week with a 55-53 victory over reigning Class C runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia – one of only three teams to beat Fulton during 2013-14.

Peck (5-1) – The 8-player football power is strong at basketball too, with its only loss to Class B Richmond, 45-41, on Jan. 3. The Pirates lost only once in 2013-14, to eventual Class D champion Southfield Christian in their Quarterfinal.

Morenci (3-1) – The Bulldogs are following their football success of the fall with a nice start to the winter including a one-point win last week over Whitmore Lake after a two-point win to kick off the new year against Gorham-Fayette (Ohio) on Jan. 3.

Onekama (4-0) – The Portagers sit atop the West Michigan D League standings in part because of a two-point win last week over reigning league champion Baldwin; Onekama followed up with another two-point win against Manistee.

PHOTO: Detroit East English defenders block the lane during their 75-70 win over Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.) 

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.)