Before the Bridge: Class E & the UP

July 31, 2017

By Ron Pesch
MHSAA historian 

This is the final part in a series on MHSAA tournament classification, past and present, that has been published over the last two weeks and originally ran in this spring's edition of MHSAA benchmarks.

The stories are worthy of the silver screen.

Long lost legends of lore, forgotten by most in the Lower Peninsula of the state of Michigan.

Absurd anecdotes of basketball played behind glass, and out-of-bounds lines painted on walls.

Tales of overlooked places like Trenary and Champion and Doelle and Watersmeet.

This is the story of MHSAA Class E basketball.

From 1932 to 1947, Michigan's Upper Peninsula did not compete in the state-sponsored basketball tournament. Instead, the U.P. held a separate basketball tournament, crowning champions in Classes B, C and D. In 1941, the state added a fifth classification – Class E, comprised of schools with a student body numbering 75 or fewer. A fourth bracket was added to the U.P. tourney.

Following the 1948 season, the Upper Peninsula returned to the state tournament. Winners of the traditional U.P. tourney were pronounced regional champions, and advanced to the state quarterfinals in Classes B, C and D. However, since there were no Class E schools with basketball teams in the Lower Peninsula, the winner of the U.P. tournament crown was proclaimed Class E state champion. This arrangement continued through the spring of the 1960 season.

Since they were the state's smallest high schools, the gymnasiums came in all shapes and sizes. Some sported a center circle that intersected with the top of the key. Basketball courts that doubled as a stage required netting to keep the kids and the ball on the court and away from the audience seated below.

Fred Boddy, a former coach at Champion, recalled his first visit to Doelle. Located in copper country near Houghton, the hosts were the proud owners of “the smallest” gym in U.P.

“I couldn't believe my eyes. ... Here on the second floor were windows and bleachers all around filled with fans. The gym, of course, was located on the first floor, but to get into the gym one had to go around to the back of the school to enter through the boiler room to the locker rooms, which opened onto the gym floor much like a dugout on a baseball field. The players sat on a bench under the wall and could look out and see the game in this manner. The free throw lines intersected and there were no out of bounds lines... the wall itself was ‘out of bounds.’ On the floor during the game were 10 players and two referees. There were no sounds as all the fans were up on the second floor, glassed in.

The cheerleaders tried valiantly to fire up the fans up on the second floor, but the teams couldn't hear in the quiet below. The score clock and statistician personnel were placed in a corner box high over the floor in one corner of the gym. They attained this lofty perch by a ladder that was removed from the trap door after all three were in position and the game could thus commence. The timer then tied a rope around his ankle. To send a sub into the game the coach would send the player along the wall heading for this rope. He would pull the rope causing the timer to look down through the trap door and at next opportunity would ring the buzzer and admit this substitute”

Regardless of the challenges presented by these cracker-box gyms, the fans loved their basketball. “The enthusiasm was just the same, if not bigger, than schools twice and 10 times their size,” noted longtime U.P. historian, Jay Soderberg.

Coach Joseph Miheve's 1941 Palmer squad captured the state's first Class E title with a 39-28 win over Hulbert at Ironwood. A graduate of Wakefield High School, Miheve had never played high school basketball, serving as the team's manager.

The 1942 tournament, scheduled for March 19-21, was postponed one week because the city of Marquette was more or less taken over “by nearly 1,000 selective service registrants from every county in the Upper Peninsula” who had another and more serious battle in mind – World War II.

Palmer, this time coached by Elvin Niemi, repeated in Class E with a 37-31 victory over Bergland. It was Palmer's 32nd consecutive victory.

No tournament was held in 1943 due to the involvement of the United States in the war. In the 1944 championship game, Cedarville jumped out to a 19-14 first quarter lead but was held to 24 points in the remaining periods and fell to Amasa, 51-43 at Ishpeming.

Trenary made its lone Class E finals appearance in 1945, losing to Bergland 49-39 at Ishpeming, while the Alpha Mastodons won their first U.P. title since 1934 with a 48-28 win over Champion in 1946. It was the second of five Class E titles for Alpha coach Gerhardt “Gary” Gollakner, one of the finest coaches to come out of the U.P. Gollakner had coached at Amasa two years earlier, and his Mastodons would earn three additional titles during the 19-year run of the Class E championships.

Bergland became the tourney's second two-time winner in 1947, with a 40-37 win over the Perkins Yellowjackets. Perkins made four trips to the Class E finals over the years, including an appearance in the final year of the tournament, but came away empty-handed each time.

The Nahma Arrows made their first appearance in the championship in 1951, losing to Michigamme. Led by coach Harold “Babe” Anderson, a cage star at Northern Michigan College during the early 1940s, the Arrows returned to the finals in 1952. Nahma finished the year with a 21-0 mark and a 64-44 win over Marenisco for the crown.

The two teams met again in a finals rematch the following year. The scored was tied six times, while the lead changed hands seven times in this barnburner. With 15 seconds to play, Nahma led 64-60. Marenisco's Robert Prosser hit a jump shot, then teammate Bill Blodgett stole a pass and scored to knot the game at 64. With two seconds remaining, Nahma's Bernard Newhouse was fouled. Newhouse hit the first free throw, but missed on the second. Teammate Wendell Roddy tipped in the rebound, and the Arrows had their second title.

Alpha returned to the championship circle in 1954 with a 52-48 win over Perkins.

The 1955 title game matched a pair of the finest teams in Class E history. Trout Creek, making its first championship appearance, downed Alpha 84-83 in another Class E thriller. Don Mackey led the winners with 39 points. Tony Hoholek paced Alpha with 31, while junior John Kocinski added 21-points for the Mastodons.

Kocinski, a four-year starter at Alpha, scored 1,782 points during his career, then an all-time U.P. record. He once scored 51 points against Amasa, and could have scored more according to teammate Walter “Slip” Ball. “He refused to shoot in the fourth quarter, and passed up one shot after another,” Ball said.

Without question, Trout Creek was one of the powerhouse squads during the final years of the tourney. The Anglers, coached by Bruce “Pinky” Warren, a former captain of Purdue's football team, made four trips to the finals during the last six years of the Class E tourney. The defending champions downed Alpha in the semifinals of the 1956 tournament, then knocked off Hermansville 86-68 in the finals to repeat. It was a year of celebration for fans of U.P. basketball, as four of the state's five champions – Stephenson (B), Crystal Falls (C), Chassell (D) and Trout Creek (E) – came from Michigan's northern peninsula.

Hermansville returned to the finals in the spring of 1957 and earned its second Class E title with a 77-51 win over Michigamme at Escanaba. Trout Creek downed Perkins 61-41 for their third crown in 1958.

The 1959 championship, hosted at Northern Michigan College's fieldhouse, was a showdown of the U.P.’s only undefeated squads, Trout Creek and Nahma. Trout Creek was riding a 24-game winning streak that dated back to the 1958 season. A scoring machine, Warren's Anglers averaged 81.7 points per contest. Nahma, 19-0 on the season, boasted the U.P.'s strongest defense. Still coached by “Babe” Anderson, the Arrows had allowed an average of 38.2 points per game. Led by senior Warren Groleau, Nahma had been last defeated by Trout Creek in the semifinals of the 1958 tourney.

Leading 25-15 at the intermission, Nahma matched Trout Creek point for point in the second half for a 55-45 victory.

Hermansville, behind Richard Polazzo's 29 points and Irwin Scholtz's 27, downed surprise finalist Perkins 72-50 in the 1960 finale, to end this chapter in MHSAA history.

Today, most of the former Class E high schools are long gone. Many have closed their doors and consolidated with other area schools. Amasa and Alpha merged with Crystal Falls to form Forest Park. Palmer is now part of the Negaunee school system. Bergland and Trout Creek joined forces with Class D Ewen to form Ewen-Trout Creek. Hermansville combined with Powers to form North Central, to name but a few. A few remain: Dollar Bay, Marenisco (now Wakefield-Marenisco) and Watersmeet, and their enrollments are much the same as in the glory days of the state's fifth classification.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Jay Soderberg and Roger Finlan, who assisted in gathering statistics and quotes used in this article. Thanks also to Dick Kishpaugh, Bob Whitens, Walter “Slip” Ball, Dennis Grall, Fred Boddy, Bruce Warren, Gene Maki, Harold “Babe” Anderson and the various personnel at U.P. high schools for their contributions to this story.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Alpha boys basketball team won the 1950 Class E title by nearly doubling up Michigamme, 52-28. (Middle) Hermansville claimed the 1948 title with a 58-38 win over Rockland. 

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.)