D3 Preview: Challengers Lined Up as Beecher Seeks to Complete Repeat Run

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

March 23, 2022

Flint Beecher is one of three 2021 champions returning to the Boys Basketball Finals this weekend, and the Bucs are among the most frequent visitors to Breslin Center with Thursday’s to be their eighth Semifinal appearance over the last 13 years.

That’s a pretty imposing opener for describing any bracket. But this one could be especially loaded with Schoolcraft also making a return trip and Menominee and Ecorse showing strong credentials all season long.

DIVISON 3 Semifinals – Thursday
Menominee (22-3) vs. Ecorse (9-12), Noon
Schoolcraft (23-2) vs. Flint Beecher (22-2), 2 p.m.
FINAL  Saturday – 4:30 p.m.

Tickets for this weekend’s games are $12 for both Semifinals and Finals and are available via the Breslin Center ticket office. All Semifinals will be broadcast and viewable with subscription to MHSAA.tv, and all four Finals will air live Saturday on Bally Sports Detroit, with the Division 4 and 1 games on BSD EXTRA and the Division 3 and 2 games on BSD’s primary channel. All four will be broadcast live as well as on the BSD website and app. Audio broadcasts of all Semifinals and Finals will be available free of charge from the MHSAA Network.

Here’s a look at the four Division 3 semifinals (with rankings by MPR at the end of the regular season, and statistics through Regional Finals):

Record/rank: 9-12, No. 148
League finish: Fourth in Michigan Metro Athletic Conference Black
Coach: Gerrod Abram, third season (39-20)
Championship history: Class B runner-up 1978, Class B Lower Peninsula runner-up 1942.
Best wins: 49-47 over Erie Mason in Regional Final, 73-71 over Riverview Gabriel Richard in District Semifinal.
Players to watch: Malik Olafioye, 6-2 jr. G; Kenneth Morrast Jr., 6-1 jr. G. (Statistics not provided.)
Outlook: Ecorse is headed to the Semifinals for the first time since 1980. It’s important to note the team’s MPR would have been much higher without 10 forfeits over the first two months of the regular season; the Raiders instead would be 16-5. And they’ve appeared to be Division 3 contenders from the start, with since-forfeited wins over Division 1 Brownstown Woodhaven (19-5) and Division 2 River Rouge (17-4). The District win over Gabriel Richard was the Pioneers’ only loss of the season. This group should continue to be strong; only one senior starts and there are only two seniors total on a roster that includes four sophomores and a freshman.

Record/rank: 22-2, No. 2
League finish: First in Genesee Area Conference Red
Coach: Marquise Gray, first season (22-2)
Championship history: Nine MHSAA titles (most recent 2021), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 72-41 over No. 5 Reese in District Final, 84-68 over Division 2 No. 12 Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, 75-69 over Division 2 No. 6 Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 63-60 over Flint Carman-Ainsworth.
Players to watch: Carmelo Harris, 6-0 sr. G; James Cummings II, 6-3 sr. F. (Statistics not provided.)
Outlook: The Bucs returned to win last season’s championship, their first since 2017, and have lost only to Division 1 Grand Blanc (20-5) and Detroit Martin Luther King (19-3) this winter while handing reigning Division 2 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central (24-1) its lone defeat. Gray memorably starred at Beecher and Michigan State and played overseas before returning and serving as an assistant coach in advance of taking over the program. Harris and Cummings started on last season’s team, and 6-3 junior Robert Lee II was the only sub who saw more than two minutes of time in last year’s Final. Harris also is a returning all-state first-teamer.

Record/rank: 22-3, No. 1
League finish: First in Great Northern Conference
Coach: Sam Larson, fifth season (48-51)
Championship history: Class B champion 1967
Best wins: 60-56 (2OT) over No. 19 Benzie Central in Regional Final, 74-57 over Ishpeming Westwood in Regional Semifinal, 83-45 over Iron Mountain in District Final, 77-44 and 65-62 over Division 2 No. 1 Escanaba, 51-26 and 72-40 over Division 4 No. 4 Powers North Central.
Players to watch: Aidan Bellisle, 6-2 sr. G (15.4 ppg, 4.8 apg); Cooper Conway, 6-4 sr. F (12.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg); Brady Schultz, 6-6 sr. F (12 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg).
Outlook: The Maroons have improved from 4-17 just three seasons ago to making the Semifinals for the first time since 2008. The only two in-state losses this winter came over the last five weeks, to Escanaba in the teams’ third meeting of the season (after Menominee won the first two, and by a point to Division 4 semifinalist Ewen-Trout Creek. Five seniors start, with three sophomores playing the most prominent roles off the bench. Larson was a sophomore on the 2008 team that lost to Lansing Catholic in Class B at Breslin.

Record/rank: 23-2, No. 6
League finish: First in Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley
Coach: Randy Small, 17th season (329-67)
Championship history: Class C champion 2011, runner-up 2009.
Best wins: 60-57 (Quarterfinal) and 61-32 over No. 17 Pewamo-Westphalia, 45-31 over No. 14 Watervliet in Regional Final, 59-31 (District Final), 51-40 and 54-41 over No. 18 Kalamazoo Christian, 49-45 over Division 2 No. 5 Parchment.
Players to watch: Tyler DeGroote, 6-7 sr. F (16.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg); Shane Rykse, 6-3 soph. G (13.1 ppg, 53 3-pointers); Ty Rykse, 6-7 sr. F (12.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.3 apg).
Outlook: Schoolcraft is making a repeat appearance at Breslin and fell by just four in overtime in last season’s Semifinal against Iron Mountain. The Golden Eagles are a combined 63-4 over the last three seasons. DeGroote and Shane Rykse were main contributors last season as well – DeGroote earned an all-state honorable mention – and Ty Rykse also started in the Semifinal. The defeats this season came to Division 1 Hudsonville and Parchment, and Schoolcraft avenged the latter. Senior point guard Asher Puhalski adds another 7.2 points, four rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

PHOTO Flint Beecher’s Keyonta Menifield goes to the basket during Tuesday’s Quarterfinal win over New Haven. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)

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.)