Clarkston, Loyer Dazzle at Breslin Again

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 24, 2018

EAST LANSING – Foster Loyer hasn’t enrolled yet at Michigan State University, but it’s safe to say he’s already plenty comfortable on his future school’s basketball court.

A day after torching the Breslin Center nets for 42 points in a Semifinal, Loyer poured in 40 more Saturday to lead Clarkston to an 81-38 win against Holland West Ottawa in the MHSAA Class A championship game.

“To be honest, I think playing in front of this atmosphere and this stage, I think it definitely helped being here last year,” Loyer said. “For me there were no nerves coming in. I thought our team, honestly, when we came in we weren’t bright-eyed or scared of playing in a big place. Having been here that helped me, and coming into the game I had the mindset to attack. I’ve been working on my shot quite a bit, so I was happy a few of them went down.”

It was the second straight title for the Wolves (26-1), who gave longtime coach Dan Fife the first of his storied career a year ago.

“The first one was pretty special for me, but this one here really was special,” Fife said. “From the day we left this building (a year ago) everybody started talking about back-to-back, and I know how hard that is because it took me so long to get the first one. To think that these kids could look up to that, it’s just a tremendous challenge. I can’t say enough about these kids.”

Saturday’s game marked the end of an amazing four-year run for Loyer and his classmates, as the Wolves were 97-6 during the Class of 2018’s tenure. It’s the best four-year run in Fife’s 36 seasons as Clarkston coach.

“These kids have been fun to work with,” Fife said. “I don’t know how it started last year – I’m sure Foster had something to do with it – but we started getting in the huddle and leaving the huddle with ‘Family,’ and these kids are extremely close. They have a good relationship on and off the floor, and I’ve gotta believe that’s going to carry on forever. This kind of moment, back-to-back, is incredible. These kids have played with a bulls-eye for four years, and to continue to play like they have and meet every challenge is really a tremendous success story about who they were as kids, and how they went about business.”

Fittingly, the final shot of Loyer’s career was a 3-pointer to put him at 40 points and tied for the seventh-best scoring performance in an MHSAA Finals game. The 2018 Mr. Basketball winner finished 14 of 19 (73 percent) from the field and 6 of 11 (54 percent) from 3-point range in the game, and was 26 of 36 (72 percent) from the floor on the weekend.

He left the court he’ll play his college basketball on to a standing ovation, and he leaves Clarkston as the program’s all-time leading scorer.

“Foster Loyer is a pretty darn good player,” Holland West Ottawa coach Steve Windemuller said. “To see him in person is really special, because he is a special player. What he did today, it looked it was pretty effortless at times. I wish him all the best at Michigan State. Coach (Tom) Izzo’s got a good one.”

Loyer, who also had seven assists, was far from alone in his hot shooting, as the Wolves were 29 of 49 (59.2 percent) from the field, and 13 of 22 (59.1 percent) from 3. C.J. Robinson scored 18 points, while Taylor Currie had 13 points to go with 10 rebounds.

And it all started quickly, as Clarkston’s first four makes were from 3-point range, helping it to a 19-6 lead after one quarter, and a 49-20 lead at halftime. Holland West Ottawa (25-3), meanwhile, struggled from the jump, shooting 2 of 13 (15.4 percent) from the field in the opening quarter.

“Clarkston is really good,” Windemuller said. “If that’s any news to anybody, you’ve been living under a rock or in a cave. They were obviously really, really good today. It’s just one of those things, we get to play them one time, and I’m not sure us playing them 10 times was going to make a difference. Today wasn’t quite the way we wanted to end it, the way we wanted to play, for sure. But congratulations to them; they’re one heck of a team.”

Xavier Wade led West Ottawa with 13 points, while Liam Cavanaugh had 10. It was a rough ending, but the Panthers won’t let that take away from the deepest postseason run in program history.

“We’re thankful for the opportunity to be here,” West Ottawa senior Tyler Bosma said. “Obviously it’s not the way we wanted to go out, but I was very lucky to be part of the biggest run in West Ottawa history. I’m very thankful for that. I’m thankful for my teammates, coaches, our students, everybody that came out and supported us today and throughout the whole season. It’s really special to see and to be a part of that.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston’s Foster Loyer drives to the basket during Saturday’s Class A Final. (Middle) The Wolves’ C.J. Robinson works to get past Holland West Ottawa’s Jason Fairfield.  

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.)