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.)

Lumen Christi Building Toward Banner Aspirations under Tropea's Guidance

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

March 26, 2024

Among the first things Josh Tropea noticed when he took the boys basketball coaching job at Jackson Lumen Christi were all the state championship banners.

Greater DetroitNot for boys basketball, but for multiple other sports.

“I’m a confident coach, confident in my abilities and knowledge,” Tropea said. “You have to have some self-confidence to come in here when there are 54 state championships in other sports and none in basketball.”

Tropea wants to change that. In his second year at the Jackson County school, he came close, getting the Titans to the Division 3 Quarterfinals. The Regional title was the program’s first since 2013. He feels, however, the foundation has been set for what he thinks will be a bright future.

“We are super deep,” Tropea said. “Our freshman class is very good, the eighth-grade class is very good. We have talent coming for years. I believe we will have the ability to play for state championships in the future. We were there this year, I think.”

Tropea has made a habit of resurrecting programs during his coaching career.  The South Lyon native started at Walled Lake Western while still in college. He had brief coaching stints at Whitmore Lake and Howell before settling in at Milan, where he built that school into a Class B powerhouse, winning the Finals championship in 2013-14 and going 92-27.

Lumen players, including Lundon Hampton (23) apply defensive pressure.He left Milan for a job at Chelsea, did that for a couple of seasons and left to become an assistant coach at Spring Arbor University. He came back to Chelsea for two seasons before resigning and landing at Lumen Christi two years ago.

The Titans have had moderate success over the years, winning several conference and District titles and six Regional championships in all. They have just one trip to the Semifinals, that coming back in 1975. In 2016 the Titans fell on hard times, winning just once and starting a seven-year span of failing to reach .500 once.

Enter Tropea and an 11-win improvement from 3-18 in 2021-22 to 14-10 last season.

This year’s team went 22-5 and became just the seventh in school history to win 20 games in a season.

There were several big moments, and the Lumen Christi gym was packed night in and night out.

“I told people when I got here that I’ll know I’m successful when I can pack this gym. It seats about 3,500,” Tropea said. “When we walked out of the locker room to play Hanover-Horton in the Regional, every seat in the gym was filled. Where there weren’t bleachers, there were people standing. It was unbelievable. In the second half of the game, you couldn’t hear. Everything had to be communicated through hand signals. That was a huge moment. My players may never play in front of anything like that again in their lives.”

Lumen Christi has been a football powerhouse for decades, and Tropea is fine with that. This past season all of his players but three were from the football team that won the Division 7 championship.

Tropea said it was an easy transition to their winter sport.

“I coach great athletes who are prepared for success, who are coached hard, watch film and know how to compete,” Tropea said. “The football program takes all the hard stuff off my plate. I just get to coach basketball.”

The next piece to sustaining a top-five team, he believes, is improving the players’ skill level. For that, he’ll lean on a coaching staff that includes Tyler Aldridge, the varsity coach for five seasons before Tropea arrived.

“Tyler is incredible with the kids, great at skill work,” he said.

Tropea joined a coaching fraternity at Lumen Christi. The school’s first basketball coach was Justin Perticone, followed by Mike Ramker, Dan Crowley, Rick Karasek and, before Aldridge, Pat Neville.

A full bleachers of Titans fans cheer on their team.“At one point or another, all six of those guys were at practice or at our games this year,” Tropea said. “It’s such a cool thing. Coach Ramker was in the front row for all our games. After the games, I hang out with some of our former coaches. I’m in a golf league with one of them. We are all connected and support one another. It truly is a brotherhood here. Once you are here, you are part of the Lumen family.”

Ramker called it unique. He coached Ann Arbor St. Thomas to a 1974 Class D championship, then Lumen Christi from 1977 to 1994. He returned for one more season in 2009-10 and was coaching in the program until last year.

“The school definitely has built that culture,” Ramker said. “That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Lumen Christi.”

A tough non-league slate helped the Titans get on a roll when the postseason began.

Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep, Adrian Lenawee Christian, Michigan Center and eventual Division 3 champion Niles Brandywine were on the regular-season schedule, along with Catholic High School League foe Riverview Gabriel Richard, another Division 3 Semifinal team that Lumen Christi played three times, winning once.

“We feel like we are way more prepared going into the state playoffs than the teams we are playing,” Tropea said.

As he builds next year’s schedule, the goal remains to get ready for the MHSAA Tournament.

“We return six kids who played major minutes for us and four guys who started for us,” he said. “Our young guys will be in tough situations next year, but I know they are ready.

“The seniors I have returning next year were on a 14-win team as sophomores, and a 22-win team as a junior. We’ve changed our mentality. We’re not playing for league titles. Our focus is on March, and our kids have bought into that. If we lose a game in the middle of the season, that’s not going to bother them.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Jackson Lumen Christi coach Josh Tropea, kneeling, huddles with his team this season. (Middle) Lumen players, including Lundon Hampton (23) apply defensive pressure. (Below) A full bleachers of Titans fans cheer on their team. (Photos by Rick Bradley.)