Clarkston Earns 1st Shot at Dream Finish

March 24, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Dan Fife dreamed of playing for an MHSAA basketball championship at Jenison Field House while a student at Clarkston 50 years ago.

Thursday afternoon, the current Wolves made similar dreams come true – and offered their coach that opportunity he never was able to achieve as a player.

Clarkston’s 78-35 win over league rival West Bloomfield in Friday’s first Class A Semifinal earned the program its first appearance in an MHSAA boys basketball championship game.

The Wolves have had piles of success under Fife, the fourth winningest coach in state hoops history with 676 wins since taking over the program before the 1982-83 season. He’s led Clarkston to 30 District and 12 Regional titles, with Friday’s Semifinal the second during his tenure.

“Coach Fife, I don’t think he’ll admit how much it means to him. But it’s everyone’s goal at the beginning of every season; your ultimate goal is to finish out with a win,” Clarkston junior guard Foster Loyer said. “For Coach Fife, and the community of Clarkston, that would just mean the world to all of us, just motivate us to keep working even more.”

Clarkston (26-1), which entered the postseason tied for No. 3 in The Associated Press’ final regular-season Class A poll, will finish this season against Grand Rapids Christian at noon Saturday at the Breslin Center.

The Semifinal was the third ever in Wolves history. And the rare opportunity to advance to Saturday came with an even rarer opportunity to face a familiar opponent in this late round of the tournament.

Clarkston had beaten West Bloomfield (17-9) by 11 and seven during the regular season on the way to winning the Oakland Activities Association Red championship; the Lakers tied for third in the league.

And they knew what to expect from Loyer, a junior already committed to play at Michigan State. But it didn’t help much this time.

Loyer’s first shot of the game, an attempted layup, sailed over the rim. His second shot, a 3-pointer, touched nothing but net.

Making 10 of 17 shots from the floor and 5 of 8 3-pointers, Loyer finished with 32 points, to go with seven assists. Senior forward Dylan Alderson added 27 points, and sophomore center Taylor Currie had 10 points and 16 rebounds as Clarkston hit 57 percent of its shots from the floor – including an incredible 69 percent during a first quarter that ended with the Wolves carrying a 24-13 lead.

Clarkston took an 18-point advantage into halftime.

Senior guard Kevin McAdoo led the Lakers with 22 points, but as a team they made only 22 percent of their shots from the floor, and had just one steal as Clarkston had only four turnovers but 17 assists.

“It’s a tough one to swallow today, especially with the ride we were on to get here,” said seventh-year West Bloomfield coach Jeremy Denha. “What a fun, fun time to get here with the ups and downs and the way the kids battled. We hadn’t sniffed a District Final, let alone a District title, since I’d been here – we hadn’t won one since 2003. For us to make this magical run, get to Breslin, play Clarkston a third time … yeah, the outcome is disappointing, but it’s about the journey too.”

Fife has been on a lot of these trips. So he'd likely quickly agree with his OAA colleague. And especially with how this journey has a chance to end for the first time.

“I’m not worried about what it means to me. I have an expectation; I’ve always had one no matter what I’m doing. If I’m playing something, I’m going to compete,” Fife said. “The reality is, I dreamed of playing in the state championship when I was in high school. I wanted to get to Jenison. That was always my dream, and I’m just trying to instill in the kids to have the same dream – to play basketball and get to this point. They’ll remember this day the rest of their lives, and tomorrow’s game, regardless of what happens.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston’s Foster Loyer breaks past West Bloomfield defenders to get a shot up during Friday’s first Class A Semifinal. (Middle) The Wolves’ Tieler Houston (15) gets position on West Bloomfield’s Daniel Wrack.

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.)