D3 Preview: Repeat Faces Roadblocks

March 13, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

After making is first MHSAA championship game in boys basketball a year ago – and winning it – Detroit Edison is back at the Breslin Center seeking a repeat this weekend.

But the field lined up to halt the Pioneers is full of potential obstacles. Iron Mountain and Pewamo-Westphalia have not lost this season, and rarely been challenged. Erie Mason is having its best season ever and features one of the most productive scorers who will take the court at Michigan State University over the next three days.

Division 3 Semifinals – Thursday
Iron Mountain (26-0) vs. Detroit Edison (19-7), Noon

Erie-Mason (23-2) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (26-0), 2 p.m.

Division 3 Final – Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Divisions 3 and 2). 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.)

18-8, unranked
League finish: Does not play in a conference.
Coach: Brandon Neely, sixth season (92-48)
Championship history: Class C champion 2018.
Best wins: 76-69 over No. 1 Flint Beecher in Quarterfinal, 77-68 over Division 2 No. 1 Benton Harbor, 69-66 over Division 1 No. 3 Canton.
Players to watch: Brian Taylor, 6-5 sr. F (16.6 ppg); Vincent Cooley, 6-2 jr. G (Statistics not submitted).
Outlook: Edison filled its regular-season schedule with larger and elite opponents, and its seven in-state losses all came to Division 1 or 2 teams, including four that made it to this week and two to this weekend (Detroit U-D Jesuit and Harper Woods Chandler Park). Taylor is the lone returning starter from last season’s championship game win, although current starters Cooley and junior forward Raynard Williams were among those on the bench. Taylor also is the only senior on the roster.

23-2, honorable mention
League finish: First in Lenawee County Athletic Association
Coach: Kevin Skaggs, eighth season (99-75)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 55-48 over No. 4 Hanover-Horton in Quarterfinal, 56-46 (District Final) and 64-44 over honorable mention Petersburg-Summerfield, 59-51 over Detroit Loyola in Regional Final.  
Players to watch: Joe Liedel, 5-10 jr. G (28 ppg, 81 3-pointers, 5.1 apg, 3.1 spg); John Sweeney, 6-7 sr. C (11.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 42 3-pointers).
Outlook: Erie-Mason will make its first Semifinal appearance after winning its first Regional title since 1973, and hasn’t lost since Dec. 11. Liedel has been one of the state’s most prolific scorers and went over 700 points for this season with 40 more Tuesday; he earned an all-state honorable mention a year ago. The Eagles beat another league champion, Riverview Gabriel Richard, in the Regional Semifinal. Senior Jake Trainor adds 12.5 ppg.

26-0, No. 3
League finish: First in Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Iron and Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference
Coach: Harvey Johnson Jr., 19th season (275-151)
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 1939).
Best wins: 61-56 over No. 7 Sanford Meridian in Quarterfinal, 66-52 over Traverse City St. Francis in Regional Final, 71-41 (District Final) and 78-71 (OT) over Calumet.
Players to watch: Marcus Johnson, 5-10 jr. G (23.3 ppg, 94 3-pointers, 4.6 apg); Foster Wonders, 6-5 soph. G (23.9 ppg, 55 3-pointers, 7.0 rpg).
Outlook: Iron Mountain advanced to the Quarterfinals for the second straight season and has moved on to its first Semifinal since 1994. Johnson – an all-state first-team selection last year – and Wonders make up what should be one of the most entertaining backcourts of the weekend. Both are hitting about 38 percent of their 3-point tries to lead a team that hadn’t played a single-digit game from Dec. 7 until Tuesday’s win over Meridian.

26-0, No. 2
League finish: First in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Coach: Luke Pohl, 22nd season (415-96)
Championship history: Class C runner-up 2014 and 1993.
Best wins: 70-50 over Cassopolis in Quarterfinal, 32-14 over Carson City-Crystal in District final, 50-32 over Morley Stanwood in District Semifinal, 57-54 (OT) over honorable mention Wyoming Potter’s House Christian, 52-35 over Division 4 No. 5 Wyoming Tri-unity Christian.
Players to watch: Andre Smith, 6-7 sr. C (14.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Hunter Hengesbach, 6-3 sr. G (8.5 ppg, 2.7 apg).
Outlook: P-W emerged from a league that produced two more District title winners to claim its fifth straight and return to the final week and weekend for the first time since finishing Class C runner-up in 2014. Four seniors anchor the starting lineup for a team with seven players averaging at least four points per game and three averaging at least a pair of assists. Only three wins were by fewer than 10 points, and all have been by double digits since Jan. 24.

PHOTO: Iron Mountain's Charlie Gerhard puts up a shot during his team's win over Ishpeming on Feb. 1. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)

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.)