#Charleytough Getting Stronger Amid Outpouring of Support

By Tim Robinson
Special for MHSAA.com

March 11, 2021

On a recent evening at the home of Corunna boys basketball coach John “Rocky” Buscemi and his wife Chloe, the household is a whirlwind of activity.

Their daughter Charley, 5, darts in and out of the Buscemis’ home office to ask questions, mimic riding a horse, or whatever else comes to the mind of a little girl full of energy.

The only thing that would tell you that cancer had interrupted their lives for five months in the fall and winter is the hair that just now is starting to grow on Charley’s scalp.

Shock, then Support

Charley Buscemi is named after her grandfather, Charley Silm, who refereed high school basketball for 22 years in and around mid-Michigan when he wasn’t working on the farm. He often took his daughter, Chloe, to games he worked when she was a youngster.

“I remember packing up my little bag with snacks and watch my dad officiate,” Chloe Silm-Buscemi recalled. “Even though I didn’t play basketball, I grew up in the gym, just like Charley did.”

Her daughter has grown up watching her dad coach. She confidently refers to Corunna players as “her boys” and announces that she wants to coach with him some day.

Last summer, Charley was having trouble sleeping, and sleep apnea was diagnosed. Her doctor advised that removing Charley’s tonsils would likely eliminate the apnea.

Corunna Buscemi FamilyThe Buscemis agreed, and her tonsils were removed Sept. 25.

“We knew nothing else,” Chloe said, “but apparently the doctor noticed that one of the tonsils looked abnormal, or a little awkward, so he sent it off for testing.”

Chloe said she was told that any complications might require another operation to stop bleeding in the area, but she was stunned when the doctor’s office called back Oct. 1.

“We didn’t know the testing had been done,” Chloe said. “We got a call that said ‘the findings of the pathology are consistent with a diagnosis of lymphoma.’ And we were like, ‘Wait. What?’ It caught us completely off guard. (Charley) was racing in circles around our kitchen island and our dining room table, and I was like, no, you’ve got the wrong kid here. There’s no way this kid has cancer.”

“Initially, it was, this can’t be right,” Rocky said. “I was trying to read between the lines and find some wording that gave some idea that this is what they think. I tried to hang onto the idea that there’s got to be more tests, and those tests will show us that it’s not (cancer).”

The diagnosis was correct. Charley had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s a fast-growing cancer that affects B-lymphocytes, a type of blood cell that helps fight infection.

While it is a fast-growing lymphoma, it’s considered potentially curable.

The cancerous cells found in Charley’s tonsil were sent to the Mayo Clinic and the National Institute of Health, and the diagnosis was confirmed.

Charley began chemotherapy at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing and celebrated her fifth birthday there.

Chloe, meanwhile, was also navigating the second trimester of her pregnancy.

“I spent most of my second trimester sleeping on a cot in the hospital while she got chemo treatments,” Chloe said.

“Her first round of chemo was horrible,” Rocky said. “She didn’t react to it well, and we were there 20 of 25 days.”

Corunna boys basketball 2But once word got out, people in the Corunna school system, neighbors, fellow coaches and others reached out in the Buscemis’ time of need.

“The schools were so understanding,” Rocky said. “Once we found out, it was, go be with your family. Put in for your (Family and Medical Leave Act). Everyone was supportive from that end.”

The Corunna basketball players drove out to the Buscemi home and raked up its leaves. Some Corunna alumni got together to string up Christmas lights, the Orchard Lake St. Mary’s team sent her a giant stuffed panda, and many more showed support.

“We’re working on thank-yous now,” Chloe said. “My mom says people would know if you posted a thank-you (online), but I want to be able to send something out. Right now there’s something like 250 thank-yous.”

Strength & Sliver Linings

Charley had two rounds of chemotherapy and has been pronounced cancer-free. She has monthly meetings with her oncologist and quarterly CT scans scheduled for the next year.

“They’re watching her heart, because the chemo can affect that, so we meet with the cardiologist,” Chloe says.

“It’s a lot for a little person,” she adds as Charley flits back and forth between parents, announcing at one point she has cleaned her plate at dinner with no small amount of pride. “But for the most part, she’s just like this. She’s pretty happy, pretty easy-going, and takes it in stride. Sometimes I struggle with it more than she does. You feel totally helpless.”

For Rocky, the whole experience is full of silver linings, however hard-won.

“You’re always trying to find the silver linings,’ he said. “We had no idea she had cancer, but the silver lining was once we found out what it was, and it was confined to the tonsil, the blessing was it was almost a miracle we had her tonsils removed almost at the same time it was starting to develop. It wasn’t found anywhere else, so that’s a silver lining.

“Recently she’s been diagnosed as having celiac disease, and we’ve been given the OK to (shift) to a gluten-free diet. If she hadn’t had cancer, we might not have known until she was a teenager and had permanent damage. We’ve been so fortunate and blessed to find things out when we did.”

The Buscemis talk in tones of awe and appreciation for the caring and other gestures that have come their way.

“It’s incredibly humbling,” Rocky said. “It makes you want to do for someone else. I’m much more aware of people in need, and I hope to pay it forward. There are a lot of people you wouldn’t have anticipated reaching out who have reached out.”

The fear and stress of that time, he said, are often near, even with Charley in the clear.

“I wanted to be strong for Chloe and my family and be that rock that could be leaned on,” he said. “But man, oh man, there are still mornings when I drive to school and tear up. It’s nice to have other guys who understand that or have been through it. I’d be the rock here (at home) and then I’d be emotional with my friends in the coaching fraternity.”

Charley and 3-year-old brother Sam were mainstays at practice last year, playing quietly in a corner of the gym while the team practiced. Charley was at most every game, and Rocky always made a point of looking for her and her mother in the stands.

That hasn’t been the case this year, as Charley’s immune system has been weakened by the chemo and has kept her at home this season, watching the Cavaliers play on her mother’s laptop.

There’s been another change, too.

Corunna Buscemi Family 2“I’ve adopted a one-day-at-a-time, appreciate-every-moment approach,” Rocky said. “A year ago in 9-degree weather, I might have been trying to find reasons not to go outside. Now if Charley wants to go sledding, we’re going sledding!”

He laughs as he says that, a man who has a new appreciation of things.

His players have been honoring her, too, wearing black T-shirts at warmups with a large unicorn on the front with the hashtag #Charleytough and the Corunna logo on a basketball.

As for Charley, she will go back to kindergarten next year, but at the moment, she’s anxiously awaiting the birth of her brother or sister March 22.

She already has informed her parents that her new sibling will be a girl, named Maggie, and wants the newborn to sleep in her room.

“She says, ‘Mommy, I’ll feed the baby,’” Chloe said, chuckling. “I told Rocky we don’t have to worry about parenting a third baby. Charley’s got it.”

Besides another new brother or sister, if all goes well, Charley will be back on the sideline with her dad and her basketball team next winter.

Rocky says his family’s experience, among other things, showed him how strong the ties are in the coaching community.

“It was nice to see the game be the bridge that allowed me to reach out and depend on people a little bit,” he said “Without it, you don’t have those relationships. Things like this make you realize how special those things really are. If you don’t experience it, you don’t get to understand people’s true motivations.

“It was humbling,” he added. “It was scary at times, but all in all it was a little bit of everything that helped us to be able to get through this.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Charley Buscemi and her dad Rocky enjoy a fun moment at home. (2) From left: Charley, Rocky, Chloe and Sam Buscemi. (3) Corunna players wear #Charleytough T-shirts as warm-ups for their games. They prominently feature Charley’s favorite animal, a unicorn. (4) Charley’s immune system isn’t robust enough for her to attend games in person, but she never misses a chance to watch “her boys” play on her mom’s laptop. (Photos courtesy of the Buscemi family.)

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.)