D1 Preview: Follow the Fan Favorites

March 13, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Friday's first Semifinals – formerly Class A, now Division 1 – always are the most popular ticket of Boys Basketball Finals weekend.

But you’ll want to get to Breslin Center especially early to see this season’s contenders.

It’s no secret that fans statewide are eager to see Ypsilanti Lincoln freshman Emoni Bates. But local Okemos no doubt will bring a big crowd as well. Howell, just down I-96, should too as it plays in its first Semifinal in more than 90 years. And Detroit U-D Jesuit always seems to bring a following, led by a festive student section.

Division 1 Semifinals – Friday
Howell (20-6) vs. Ypsilanti Lincoln (21-4), Noon
Detroit U-D Jesuit (24-2) vs. Okemos (23-2), 2 p.m.

Division 1 Final – Saturday, 12:15 p.m.

Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Divisions 4 and 1). All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a pay-per-view basis. The Divisions 2, 3 and 4 championship games will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit’s primary channel, while the Division 1 Final will be shown live on Fox Sports Detroit PLUS. All four championship games will be streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports app. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.

Below is a glance at all four semifinalists. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.)

24-2, No. 1
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Central
Coach: Pat Donnelly, 11th season (207-53) 
Championship history: Class A champion 2016.
Best wins: 91-54 over honorable mention Roseville in Quarterfinal, 79-59 over honorable mention Detroit Cass Tech, 70-69 over Division 3 No. 1 Flint Beecher, 54-47 over Detroit Edison.
Players to watch: Daniel Friday, 6-4 sr. G/F (16.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.5 bpg); Jalen Thomas, 6-10 F/C (12.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg).
Outlook: The Cubs have reached at least the Quarterfinals six seasons straight and won their six playoff games this winter by an average of 27 points per. Jesuit hasn’t lost since Jan. 5, and it’s only instate defeat was Dec. 1 to Division 2 No. 1 New Haven. Friday and Thomas earned all-state honorable mentions last season and senior guard Caleb Hunter (9.6 ppg) made the all-state first team in Class D. Senior guard Julian Dozier adds 12.8 ppg and leads the team at 5.9 assists per contest.

20-6, unranked
League finish: Second in Kensington Lakes Activities Association West
Coach: Nick Simon, seventh season (108-55) 
Championship history: Class B runner-up 1927. 
Best wins: 57-56 over No. 5 Saginaw in Quarterfinal, 59-46 over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Regional Semifinal, 55-49 over Linden in District Final, 58-57 over Wayne Memorial.
Players to watch: Josh Palo, 6-2 sr. G (17.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.7 apg); Tony Honkala, 6-2 jr. G/F (10.2 ppg).
Outlook: Howell played its first Quarterfinal since 2014 on Tuesday to earn its first trip to the Semifinals since 1927. The Highlanders have won 14 of their last 16 games, the only losses during that time both to No. 3 Canton, and while giving up 50 or more points only four times during the run. Palo earned an all-state honorable mention last season and is one of four seniors in the starting lineup.

23-2, honorable mention
League finish: First in Capital Area Activities Conference Blue
Coach: Jeff Wonch, seventh season (101-58)
Championship history: Class B champion 1982 & 1981, Class A runner-up 2006. 
Best wins: 50-45 over East Kentwood in Quarterfinal, 39-34 (Regional Final), 56-41 and 41-35 over DeWitt, 72-28 over Howell.
Players to watch: Evan Thomas, 6-4 sr. G/F (17.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Noah Pruitt, 5-9 jr. G (10.7 ppg, 3.0 apg).
Outlook: Okemos is returning to the Semifinals for the first time since the runner-up run in 2006, although Wonch has been to Breslin a little more recently – he led Bath to the Class C championship in 2007. The Chiefs only losses this season were Detroit Catholic Central and Haslett, which both went on to win at least District titles. Long-range shooting could be key – entering the week, five players had made at least 13 3-pointers and the team as a whole was making 33 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.

21-4, honorable mention
League finish: First in Southeastern Conference White
Coach: Jesse Davis, fourth season (54-34)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 56-52 over No. 8 Detroit Martin Luther King in Quarterfinal, 81-79 over Detroit Catholic Central in Regional Final, 58-55 over Ann Arbor Skyline in Regional Semifinal. 
Players to watch: Emoni Bates, 6-10 fr. (29.2 ppg, 53 3-pointers, 10.1 rpg, ); Jalen Fisher, 5-10 sr. G (13.1 ppg, 3.3 spg).
Outlook: Bates entered this season known as perhaps the top player his grade in the country. It’s fair to say his impact has been even greater than anticipated. He’s keyed Lincoln’s run to its first Regional title and now first Semifinal berth, making game-winning shots in both of last week’s games as he’s continued building one of the most memorable freshman seasons in state history. But his teammates certainly have done their parts. In addition to Fisher, seniors Amari Frye (10.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Tahj Chatman (10 ppg, 2.9 apg) also are averaging double-digit scoring, and Lincoln as a team is making nearly 45 percent of its shots from the floor with Bates, Fisher and Chatman also all at 73 percent or better from the free-throw line.

PHOTO: Okemos’ Evan Thomas looks for an opening during Tuesday night’s Quarterfinal win while East Kentwood’s Ja’moni Jones (1) defends. (Photo by Eric Sawatzki.)

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.)