Cass Tech 'Gamers' Force OT, Finish Surge to Reach 1st Final Since 1974

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 24, 2023

EAST LANSING – Detroit Cass Tech’s Darius Acuff was held in check for a majority of the second half Friday by Grand Blanc’s defense.

The talented sophomore, however, came up clutch in a pivotal moment.

The 6-foot-2 guard forced overtime with a 3-pointer and then scored four points in the extra period to help lift the Technicians to a thrilling 62-56 win in a Division 1 Semifinal at Breslin Center. 

Cass Tech (27-1) will play Muskegon in Saturday’s Division 1 Final.

After Grand Blanc senior Robert Williams made two free throws with 9.1 seconds left in regulation to put his team ahead 54-51, Acuff banked in a 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

It was only his second field goal of the second half after tallying 10 first-half points.

“Once I got open, I called for the ball and I knew I was going to shoot it,” said Acuff, who finished with a game-high 19 points, five assists and three steals. “I knew it was going in.”

The Technicians took control in the extra session.

A breakaway layup by Acuff pushed the Cass Tech lead to 59-56 with 55 seconds to play. He followed with a pair of free throws to make it 61-56. 

“We have some gamers on this team, and he doesn’t practice to my liking a lot of times, but when those lights come on I can count on him,” Technicians coach Steven Hall said of his standout sophomore. “The last play out of the timeout that we got a 3 on, they executed it to the T.”

Cass Tech was making its first Semifinal appearance since 1993, and will play in its first Final since 1974, when it finished Class A runner-up.

The Technicians’ Darius Acuff shoots the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation despite the defense of Grand Blanc’s Anthony Perdue (5).

Hall guided Detroit Rogers to three straight Class D titles (2003-05) and returned to his alma mater in 2015-16.

“It’s a wide range of emotions right now,” Hall said. “I’m happy to still be living to fight another day.

“For me, it’s my sixth time here but the first time with my school, and it's a dream of mine. It was a dream of mine for these guys. We came so close last year, and sitting here last year and watching the Semifinals was painful, but I’ve been dreaming of getting here with my school.” 

Cass Tech ended a 22-game winning streak by Grand Blanc, which was denied a third-straight appearance in the Division 1 Final. 

The Bobcats (25-3) rallied from an early deficit, but committed 18 turnovers for the game and were held to one field goal in overtime. 

“We didn’t handle the pressure, and one of the keys of our offensive game plan was limiting turnovers,” first-year Grand Blanc coach Tory Jackson said. “You can't beat great teams like that with 18 turnovers, and we just didn’t handle the pressure like we were supposed to.

“Hats off to Acuff. He’s a tough player and by far one of the best players we've played all year. We got undisciplined at the end, and it’s frustrating because this was supposed to be ours. We left money on the table.” 

Cass Tech jumped out to an early 11-4 lead as Acuff scored six quick points. 

The Bobcats, however, trimmed the deficit to 17-15 in the second quarter with a 3-pointer in the corner from sophomore Donnie Huddleston.

The Technicians took a slim 26-25 lead into halftime.  

Grand Blanc took its first lead, 35-34, midway through the third quarter on an offensive rebound and put-back by junior Anthony Perdue.

Cass Tech has become accustomed to close games.

“That’s us being tough and scrappy,” Acuff said. “It’s always going to come down to one possession, and it came down to that. Once we went to overtime we knew we were going to win, but we knew we had to fight for it.”

Senior Tae Boyd led the Bobcats with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while senior RJ Taylor had nine points.

Senior Kenneth Robertson added 15 points for Cass Tech, and freshman Corey Sadler Jr. added 14 points.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Detroit Cass Tech’s Corey Sadler Jr. (0) gets up a shot during his team’s Division 1 Semifinal overtime win Friday. (Middle) The Technicians’ Darius Acuff shoots the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation despite the defense of Grand Blanc’s Anthony Perdue (5).

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.)