Cass Tech Continuing Rise to Hoops Elite

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 4, 2018

DETROIT – When you think of Detroit Cass Tech, one would probably think of its football program.

Why not? The program coach Thomas Wilcher has built there has been arguably the best in the state the past dozen years.

That fact doesn’t bother Steve Hall, the head coach of the Technicians’ boys basketball team. On the contrary, Hall, a 1988 Cass Tech graduate and co-athletic director (along with Wilcher), takes pride in it.

It also serves as motivation.

Hall is in his third season at Cass Tech, and when the next rankings are released his Technicians will be ranked No. 1 in Class A by at least one news service, State Champs Network, and likely others.

Cass Tech is 7-0 overall and 2-0 in the Detroit Public School League. The Technicians are currently on winter break and scheduled to play next against Detroit Henry Ford on Jan. 12.

That a PSL team is ranked No. 1 is common. Teams like Detroit Cooley, Detroit Pershing, Detroit Renaissance, Detroit Southwestern and, most recently, Detroit Western, all have been ranked No. 1 over the past many years.

But for Cass Tech, it is unusual. In fact, it is believed that a top ranking for a Cass Tech boys basketball team would be the program’s first.

Hall is careful not to boast or gloat. After all, it’s early in the season and nobody awards MHSAA championship trophies in January.

“It’s hard to feel great about being No. 1,” Hall said. “The last thing you want to do is exhale.”

The program has achieved success in the past but, truthfully, it’s been awhile. Before Hall took over, Cass Tech most recently had won two PSL titles under coach Robert Shannon, the last coming in 1998. During the late 1980s, when Hall was one of the state’s top players, Cass Tech reached the 1988 Class A Quarterfinals before losing to the eventual champion, Cooley. Cass Tech had defeated Cooley that season in the PSL quarterfinals. The 1993 team that won the PSL title made it all the way to a Class A Semifinals.

During the 1950s Cass Tech was a powerhouse in the city winning three PSL titles over the decade. As one might surmise, Cass Tech has never won a state title. And just once has it reached an MHSAA Final, as the Technicians lost to Birmingham Brother Rice, 60-56 in overtime, in the 1974 Class A championship game.

Since 1998, Cass Tech had reached a PSL final just once (2013). That is, before Hall came aboard.

Last season Cass Tech defeated Detroit Martin Luther King, 59-47, to capture the school’s eighth PSL title. The Technicians won a District title for the first time since 2014 and finished 20-5, a vast improvement from the 11-10 record they posted in Hall’s first season.

As good as last season was for the program, it was just one step forward. Hall has set loftier goals.

His three-year plan included becoming regarded at the state level and nationally. That plan is on schedule.

“There were some dynamics that first year,” Hall said. “I was hired late and I didn’t have the kids during the summer. We beat (Detroit) Western, Benton Harbor and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s that season. It’s a tough league. The stable programs had upperclassmen leading them. It was a year of growth. I wouldn’t have the same appreciation (for the success) if we had won that first year. ”

Though Hall is in just his third season at Cass Tech, he’s built a strong resume as a coach, within the PSL and at the collegiate level. High school basketball fans will remember the great Detroit Rogers teams in the early 2000s that won three consecutive Class D titles (2003-05) with Hall as head coach. When that school closed in 2005, Hall went to Detroit Northwestern and guided the Colts to the PSL title in 2008, Northwestern’s first league championship in 30 years. That season Northwestern reached a Class A Regional Final before losing to Pershing.

Hall then left Michigan and became an assistant coach at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. He stayed there four seasons before he was hired by Youngstown State in Ohio as an assistant. Hall remained there for four seasons before returning to Detroit.

This team has talent, but is void of any one superstar. None of the four seniors are Division I recruits. Hall returned six players who started at least one game last season and the top senior is Randy Gilbert, a 6-foot-6 forward who signed with Ferris State.    

There are Division I recruits coming up, however, including 6-3 sophomore Tyson Acuff and 6-5 juniors Kalil Whitehead and Tyland Tate.

Gilbert, who alternates between forward and center, is in his fourth season as a starter. He may not have made the varsity so early or with such an immediate impact playing at one of the city’s established basketball powers.

“Even going into my sophomore year people started to say things like I should transfer somewhere else,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t think about that at all. I thought we had potential.

“Coach Hall has been great to us players. He’s opened up a lot of doors. He takes us to a lot of team camps during the summer to different level of schools like Division I, Division II and NAIA so everybody gets a shot and to see where they can play (in college).

“I don’t look at Cass Tech being a football school now. We changed that.”

In the long run, that’s been one of Hall’s goals. Hall is a basketball coach, but he’s also a fan of all sports, in particular those at Cass Tech. He wants to see all of the athletic programs enjoy success, not just his team.

“When you’re a coach, it’s a way of life,” Hall said. “When I went to Cass our girls (basketball team) won the Class A title. I’ve been to Ford Field to watch the football team. I’ve been to their practices. I grew up around the school. My father (Ferd Hall) was an assistant principal here when I was growing up in the mid-70s. Cass Tech has always meant so much to me.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Cass Tech boys basketball team including head coach Steve Hall (far right) stands together at a game this season. (Middle) Randy Gilbert prepares to throw down a dunk. (Photos courtesy of the Cass Tech boys basketball program.

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.)