Class C: Reaching Higher

March 22, 2012

EAST LANSING – After falling in the first week of the MHSAA tournament last season, there was no way Traverse City St. Francis was going to look ahead to the end of March this winter.

But riding the bus to Breslin Center on Thursday, the reality of this weekend hit senior Sean Sheldon.

The Gladiators were 32 minutes from reaching their first MHSAA boys basketball Final. And now, they’re only 32 more from winning their first championship.

St. Francis earned that opportunity with 63-54 win over No. 8 Shelby in the second Class C Semifinal. The Gladiators will face Flint Beecher in the noon championship game Saturday.

“Last year, we got out of tournament pretty early. It was a big disappointment for us,” Sheldon said. “We looked ahead a little bit, kinda at what we could do. … Now we’re in the Finals, and now 32 minutes from holding up the first ever state title for our school.”

This was St. Francis’ third Semifinal appearance. The Gladiators (25-2) had never before advanced, losing in their last appearance, in 2006, by 29 points to Saginaw Buena Vista.

St. Francis had high hopes last season. But Elk Rapids ended those abruptly in the District Final.

This time, the Gladiators beat all three of their District opponents by at least 31 points, and two more after that by at least 11 before coming up against Shelby – which was making its first Semifinal appearance since 1972, when Tigers’ longtime coach Rick Zoulek was in middle school.

“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking that was a goal of mine,” said Shelby’s David Beckman, Jr., who with Jeremiah James was a four-year varsity player. “It just happened to be the 50-year anniversary, and we actually made that happen. We had 13 guys make that happen.”

And they nearly advanced to their first Final since that same season.

No matter how much St. Francis surged, Shelby hung around – and took a 45-44 lead with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. The Gladiators held just a one-point lead with 5:58 to play.

“You could feel the momentum coming back our way, and we had a few breaks go against us. A couple mistakes. We missed a couple of shots, a turnover here and there,” Zoulek said. “It was really close. It makes you realize how close you really are to being in that final game. Just a couple of plays.”

Some of them came from Sheldon, who scored six of his 16 points over the final six minutes. The Tigers also made just 4 of 11 shots during that time and had three turnovers. They did well breaking St. Francis’ fullcourt press, but struggled to finish at the other end.

Beckman finished with 17 points and James had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Shelby (24-3).

Three others scored in double figures for St. Francis – senior guard Devin Sheehy led with 18 points (and seven assists), while senior center Michael Jenkins added 14 points and sophomore guard Byron Bullough had 11. Sheldon, who has signed with William & Mary, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.

While the basketball championship game is new ground for St. Francis, winning at this level is not—the Gladiators have won six MHSAA football championships over the last 21 seasons.

It’s definitely a football school by reputation. And that success was a big reason basketball coach Keith Haske took the hoops job before 2010-11 after leading multiple Charlevoix teams to Breslin.

“One of the reasons I was excited about going there was because of football. The kids have the mentality they can be state champions,” Haske said. “When I walked in the first day of practice, I had a group of kids who said that because of football, we can be state champs here. That’s a huge factor, and I don’t think people realize that. Because not only do that believe that, but they put the work into it.”

Click for box score or to watch the game and press conferences at

PHOTO: Traverse City St. Francis' Sean Sheldon had 16 points and 12 rebounds in Thursday's Semifinal win. (Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.

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.)