Bucs Take Place Among Beecher Greats

March 28, 2015

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING — Flint Beecher's basketball players warmed up Saturday wearing red and white T-shirts proclaiming the 2015 Buccaneers as Genesee Area Conference Red Division champions. 

It was certainly an understated look for a team with much loftier goals than league titles.

The expectation for young basketball players growing up in the Beecher community the past 40 years has been MHSAA Finals championships — and nothing less. 

This year's players added their names to the list of greats who have gone before them by beating Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, 78-52, in the MHSAA Class C title game at the Breslin Center.

It was Beecher's third championship in the last four years and sixth overall. The Buccaneers have played in 10 Finals and 16 Semifinals over the last 40 years. 

There were some down years as well. But all any of the current players can remember are Beecher teams that have been legitimate threats to win it all.

"We don't think about losing," Beecher coach Mike Williams said. "We prepare to win. We don't prepare to lose. We set a standard that we want to win championships. It's important that the kids learn how to set goals and how to work toward them. That's one thing they get from me is that discipline, that structure that in life there's going to be competition, no matter what you do or where you go. You need to learn how to prepare. 

“The other thing is you have to have an edge and you have to have a chip on your shoulder. We don't want to be just an average team; we want to be the best."

There was no doubt Beecher was the best team in Class C this season. 

The Buccaneers (26-1) won their eight postseason games by an average margin of 31.4 points, with the closest game an 18-point decision over Southfield Christian in the Regional Final.

Not even a team good enough to play on the final day of the season could pose a serious threat to this Buccaneers squad. Beecher scored the first eight points of the game and led by 23 early in the second quarter. 

"You know, they're a great team," NorthPointe coach Jared Redell said. "They've been the gold standard of Class C basketball for a long time. ... Obviously, Flint Beecher's been here a ton. They know what to expect. All those kids growing up, when they're in middle school watching the high school kids win state championships and coming to the Breslin Center all the time, that has a big part in terms of the culture of the school."

This would have been Beecher's sixth straight trip to the Breslin Center if not for a devastating loss to Pewamo-Westphalia in last year's Quarterfinals. The Buccaneers led by four points with less than 15 seconds to go, but lost 42-41. 

It was a painful memory that drove the Buccaneers all season.

"Last year we learned we can't take anything for granted," said senior Samuel Toins, who was 5 for 10 from 3-point range while scoring 17 points. "Every day in practice, we went hard and didn't goof around. I just wanted to lead my team and leave my legacy with this program." 

Junior Aquavius Burks is the only Buccaneer who played in the nail-biter championship game Beecher won 40-39 against Laingsburg two years ago, scoring nine points in 21 minutes in that game. Backup Mike Herd was on the varsity that season.

Burks was one of four Buccaneers in double figures on Saturday, scoring 15 points to go with 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks. 

"I feel relieved it's over with and we won," Burks said.

Other than Burks, it was an entirely different cast. The 2012 and 2013 championship teams were led by Monte Morris, the 2013 Mr. Basketball who is having a successful career at Iowa State. Morris, whose Cyclones were upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament, was in the stands cheering on his alma mater Saturday. 

"That's like their big brother," Williams said. "We knew he was coming home. He was at practice yesterday. Monte was calling, keeping up with us the whole way."

There would be no repeat of 2013, when Beecher had to hold on for dear life to turn aside an upset bid by Laingsburg. 

The Buccaneers were up 8-0 with 5:52 left in the first quarter and build leads of 25-5 and 28-8 during that opening period. A 3-pointer by Malik Ellison with 6:48 left in the second quarter made it 33-10 before the Mustangs (21-6) were able to settle down and play on relatively even terms the rest of the game.

"I felt like if we got out to a good start that we could play with them, and it was the start that killed us," Redell said. "We were down 20 at the end of the first quarter. Part of it was, obviously, them and their pressure. The other part was we're not beating them shooting 30 percent from the floor. We had to come out and make shots in order to be right there with them." 

Beecher's trademark pressure defense led to an 18-6 advantage in points off of turnovers for the Buccaneers.

"We wanted to throw the first punch," Williams said. "We wanted to get out and pressure them." 

NorthPointe got within 33-17 midway through the second quarter, but Beecher responded with a 12-2 run. Beecher shot 52.9 percent in the first half on its way to a 45-21 lead at the break.

The lead reached 52-26 with 5:04 left in the third quarter. The closest NorthPointe got after that was 18 points. 

All-stater Cedric Moten shot 11 for 13 from the floor while scoring a game-high 24 points.

"I just came out and tried to do my best to help my team win," Moten said. "That's basically it. Whatever it took to get the win was what I was going to do. The shots were going in." 

Ellison, a sophomore who took over for Morris last year as the starting point guard, had 10 points. Levane Blake grabbed 10 rebounds.

Kual Nhial had 16 points and 10 rebounds (eight offensive), Tyler Baker 14 points and Preston Huckaby 10 points for NorthPointe.

Click for the full box score and video from the postgame press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Beecher's Mike Herd drives for a shot during Saturday's Class C Final. (Middle) NorthPointe's Preston Huckaby looks for an opening. 

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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 MHSAA.com 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.)