C-D Preview: All Eyes on Thursday

March 22, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

It's rare that Michigan's smallest schools are the headliners of the MHSAA's Boys Basketball Finals. 

But as the final weekend of the tournament gets underway Thursday, the evening session's first game arguably is the most intriguing matchup of the entire event. 

Two-time reigning Class D champion Powers North Central will try to extend the longest active winning streak in the country against a recent three-time champion in Southfield Christian that played in Class C the last two seasons. The Jets have won 81 straight games, breaking the MHSAA record with their 66th straight victory earlier this winter. 

That's just one of what should be an entertaining collection of games in Class C and D this weekend. All four Class C and D Semifinals will be played Thursday, with all four championship games Saturday. 

Semifinals - Thursday
Class C

Detroit Edison PSA (14-11) vs. Flint Beecher (21-5), 1 p.m. 
Grand Rapids Covenant Christian (20-5) vs. Manton (21-4), 2:50 p.m.

Class D
Powers North Central (26-0) vs. Southfield Christian (21-5), 6 p.m. 
Lansing Christian (19-6) vs. Buckley (25-0), 7:50 p.m.

Finals - Saturday
Class A - Noon
Class B - 6:30 p.m.
Class C - 4:30 p.m. 
Class D - 10 a.m.

Tickets cost $8 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session. All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.

And now, a look at the semifinalists in Class C and D. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.) The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

Class C

14-11, unranked
League finish: Third in Detroit Public School League East Division 1
Coach: Brandon Neely, fourth season (56-33) 
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 61-48 over No. 2 Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in the Quarterfinal, 66-60 over Detroit Cornerstone Health & Technology in the Regional Final, 57-51 over Detroit Martin Luther King, 99-81 over Class A honorable mention Detroit East English, 68-67 over Detroit Osborn. 
Players to watch: Pierre Mitchell, Jr., 6-0 jr G; Gary Solomon, 6-5 jr. G (Statistics not submitted).
Outlook: Edison won its first Regional title to advance to this week and will now try to follow the example of its girls team, which won the Class C championship last weekend. The Pioneers joined the PSL this season and split with Class A King and East English and Class B quarterfinalist Osborn – and also avenged an earlier 26-point loss to Cornerstone by winning the Regional Final. Solomon made the all-state first team, and Mitchell earned an honorable mention.

21-5, Tied for No. 4
League finish: First in Genesee Area Conference Red
Coach: Mike Williams, 13th season (250-76)
Championship history: Seven MHSAA titles (most recent 2016), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 59-57 over Class A No. 6 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 72-57 and 88-63 over Lake Fenton, 63-54, 77-73 and 80-64 (District Quarterfinal) over Flint Hamady. 
Players to watch: Malik Ellison, 5-7 sr. G (23.8 ppg, 64 3-pointers); Jordan Roland, 5-11 sr. G (12.6 ppg); Levane Blake, 6-7 sr. C (7.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.7 bpg).
Outlook: Beecher has won the last two Class C championships and four of the last five, and enters with the Class C Player of the Year from The Associated Press in Ellison – who with Blake and Roland started in last season’s championship game (Ellison and Blake also started in the 2015 Final). Blake and Roland both earned all-state honorable mentions this season to go with Ellison’s top honor. The losses were all to Class A and B teams, including B semifinalist New Haven (in triple overtime) and reigning champion Detroit Henry Ford

20-5, unranked
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Coach: Tyler Schimmel, third season (48-20)
Championship history: Class D champion in 1994, 1993 and 1973. 
Best wins: 51-50 over Muskegon Heights Academy in the Regional Final, 56-52 (2OT) over No. 7 Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional Semifinal, 80-67 over Class D No. 8 Lansing Christian, 61-47 over Spring Lake. 
Players to watch: Carson Meulenberg, 6-6 jr. F (13.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Benji Kuiper, 6-0 sr. G (10.6 ppg, 49 3-pointers, 5.1 apg).
Outlook: Covenant Christian is back at the Semifinals for the first time since 1994 and for the first time ever as a Class C school. The Chargers played a regular-season schedule filled with larger schools, making their streak of 13 wins over their last 14 games especially impressive. Kuiper earned an all-state honorable mention and distributes to a starting lineup with four juniors. In addition to Kuiper’s sharp-shooting, teammate Tyler Cammenga had 64 3-pointers entering the week; he and forward Trenton Koole both add 9.1 ppg.

21-4, unranked
League finish: Second in Highland Conference
Coach: Ryan Hiller, 11th season (123-119)
Championship history: Class C (Lower Peninsula) champion 1946, Class C runner-up 1996.  
Best wins: 51-49 (OT) over Negaunee in the Quarterfinal, 54-48 over No. 1 McBain in the Regional Final, 58-32 over Beaverton, 52-48 over Petoskey, 76-72 over Traverse City West. 
Players to watch: Jayden Perry, 5-7 jr. G (16 ppg, 53 3-pointers); Hunter Ruell, 5-8 jr. G (12.7 ppg, 3.6 apg, 50 3-pointers). 
Outlook: Manton’s only two losses over its last 17 games were to undefeated Buckley and McBain, which Manton then upset during the tournament. The Rangers have increased their win total for four straight seasons. Perry earned an all-state honorable mention and has the most attempts among a trip of sharp shooters – in addition to Perry and Ruell, sophomore guard Trevor Salani also had 48-pointers entering the week and averages 11 points per game.

Class D

25-0, No. 4
League finish: First in Northwest Conference
Coach: Blair Moss, fourth season (53-36)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 48-37 over Wyoming Tri-unity Christian in the Quarterfinal, 50-38 and 56-41 over No. 8 Frankfort, 77-73 over Manton, 78-39 and 63-60 over Maple City Glen Lake.
Players to watch: Denver Cade, 6-2 jr. G (21 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.6 apg); Austin Harris, 6-3 jr. C (18.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.4 bpg).
Outlook: Buckley has advanced to its first Semifinals with only two wins by fewer than 10 points this season and without a senior in the starting lineup. The Bears set the tone with a District title in 2016, and have simply dominated led by Cade, an all-state first-team selection, and honorable mention pick Harris. Those two also had combined for 103 3-pointers heading into this week, both making more than half their attempts from behind the arc. Junior guard Joe Weber adds another 10.9 points and 3.5 assists per game.

19-6, Tied for No. 8
League finish: Tied for first in Greater Lansing Activities Conference
Coach: Chris Mustaine, first season (19-6) 
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.  
Best wins: 63-36 over Webberville in the District Semifinal, 74-63 over Olivet, 54-39 over Wyoming Tri-unity Christian, 56-42 over Leslie.
Players to watch: Matt Havey, 6-1 sr. G (17.9 ppg, 58 3-pointers); Preston Granger, 6-4 sr. C (15.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg).
Outlook: Lansing Christian is back at the Breslin Center for the first time since 2013 and after bouncing back from a brief lull at the end of the regular season. The Pilgrims dropped three of their final four games before the playoffs, but stormed back to win all of their tournament games by at least 10 points. Havey is an impressive shooter; the all-state first-teamer was hitting 42 percent of his 3-point tries entering the week. Granger also earned an all-state honorable mention, and senior guard Forrest Bouyer adds 10 points, 6.2 assists and 3.9 steals per game.

26-0, No. 1
League finish: First in Skyline Central Conference West
Coach: Adam Mercier, 11th season (186-78)
Championship history: Class D champions 2016, 2015 and 1984.
Best wins: 74-61 over No. 3 Hillman in the Quarterfinal, 75-73 over Dollar Bay in the Regional Semifinal, 76-29, 84-52 and 79-60 (District Final) over No. 7 Bark River-Harris.
Players to watch: Jason Whitens, 6-5 sr. G (22.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 6.1 apg, 3.1 spg); Dawson Bilski, 6-3 sr. G (19.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.0 apg).
Outlook: North Central has now won 81 straight games, including through two straight Class D title runs. Whitens was named Class D co-Player of the Year by The Associated Press and was a Mr. Basketball Award finalist, and Bilski also made the all-state first team. They’ve both started on all three Breslin teams, while senior guard Bobby Kleiman (10.6 ppg) was a main sub the last two seasons and senior guard Marcus Krachinski (10.6 ppg) played a big role off the bench during last season’s run. A number of players also were part of the last two 8-player football MHSAA champions. Bilski will continue next season at Michigan Tech, and Whitens is choosing from a number of college options.

21-5, No. 2
League finish: First in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue
Coach: Josh Baker, sixth season (110-18)
Championship history: Class D champions 2014, 2013 and 2012.
Best wins: 64-42 over No. 10 Fowler in the Quarterfinal, 72-65 over North Farmington, 87-77 over West Bloomfield, 73-55 over Detroit Cornerstone Health & Technology.
Players to watch: Bryce Washington, 6-3 jr. G (18.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg); Brock Washington, 6-4 sr. G (13.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
Outlook: Southfield Christian played in Class C the last two seasons and won two District titles, and returns to Class D with plenty of star power again. Washington was named co-Player of the Year with Whitens, and Brock Washington also made the all-state first team. Sophomore guards Harlond Beverly (12.4 ppg) and Caleb Hunter (11.6) also offer scoring punch, and all four had at least 22 3-pointers this season entering this week. Three losses came to Class A teams, and the other two came to teams in Class B including one to semifinalist River Rouge. 

PHOTO: Powers North Central's Bobby Kleiman (21) drives around a Bark River-Harris defender during their first matchup this season. (Photo by Paul Gerard)

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.)