D4 Preview: New Era, Familiar Contenders

March 13, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Division 4 has replaced Class D this year as the boys basketball tournament classification for Michigan’s smallest high schools, and some familiar teams from the previous era will return to the Breslin Center on Thursday to help usher in a new one.

Reigning Class D champion Southfield Christian and Wyoming Tri-unity Christian have won eight MHSAA Finals in this sport between them. Dollar Bay joins Southfield Christian as a returnee from last season, making the Semifinals for the second straight, and Frankfort is making the trip to East Lansing for the second time this decade.

Division 4 Semifinals – Thursday
Dollar Bay (21-4) vs. Southfield Christian (19-6), 5:30 p.m.

Frankfort (20-5) vs. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (22-3), 7:30 p.m.

Division 4 Final – Saturday, 10 a.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.)

21-4, unranked
League finish: Second in Copper Mountain Conference Copper
Coach: Jason Kentala, 12th season (105-120)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 67-64 over No. 6 Pellston in Quarterfinal, 65-56 over No. 10 Munising in Regional Semifinal, 70-55 over Chassell in District Semifinal.
Players to watch: Ashton Janke, 6-3 fr. F (16.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg); Connor LeClaire, 6-0 soph. F (13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
Outlook: Dollar Bay graduated an all-stater and brings only one starter back this weekend from last season’s Semifinal team, but is on a roll with 14 wins over its last 15 games. The lone loss during that string came to CMC Copper champ Chassell, and Dollar Bay avenged it six nights later at the District. Senior guard Brendan LeClaire (9.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.5 apg) is that one returning starter from a year ago, and sophomore guard Davin Hill adds another 12.4 ppg. The Blue Bolts are hitting on 32 percent of their 3-point shots this winter, a big plus as some of these players get their second looks at the Breslin rims.

20-5, unranked
League finish: Second in Northwest Conference
Coach: Dan Loney, first season (20-5) 
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 53-51 (OT) over honorable mention Big Rapids Crossroads, 41-38 (Regional Final), 62-59 (OT) and 63-58 over Leland.
Players to watch: Will Newbold, 6-0 sr. G (14.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.1 apg); Jack Stefanski, 6-3 soph. G (14 ppg, 17.9 rpg).
Outlook: Frankfort is making its third trip to the Semifinals and first since 2014. This time the team is led by Loney, formerly an assistant for four seasons before taking over the program. Frankfort finished behind only Division 3 No. 4 Maple City Glen Lake in the Northwest Conference and has navigated two overtime wins and a third by three points during the postseason – the two overtime victories put the team at 4-0 this season in games that went past regulation. This is also the second straight season the Panthers have reached 20 wins, and four starters plus the top scorer off the bench are all seniors.

19-6, No. 3
League finish: First in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue
Coach: Josh Baker, eighth season (179-30)
Championship history: Class D champions 2018, 2014, 2013 and 2012. 
Best wins: 55-30 over honorable mention Adrian Lenawee Christian in Regional Final, 79-53 (District Semifinal), 61-51 and 69-52 over Novi Christian.  
Players to watch: Jon Sanders, 6-1 sr. G (16.5 ppg, 56 3-pointers); Da’Jion Humphrey, 6-2 jr. G (16.4 ppg, 45 3-pointers, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg).
Outlook: Reigning Class D champion Southfield Christian is making its third straight appearance in the Semifinals, with Humphrey and Sanders both starters on last season’s title winner and junior forward Rahmon Scruggs (7.4 ppg) the top sub during the 2018 Final. Junior guard Noah Rheker adds another 11.6 ppg and had made 45 3-pointers heading into this week as well. The Eagles started this winter 2-5 facing mostly Division 1 and 2 schools; they also have wins this season over West Bloomfield and Detroit Country Day, and their only loss since Jan. 5 came to Division 2 contender River Rouge.

22-3, No. 5
League finish: Second in Alliance League
Coach: Mark Keeler, 32nd season (599-188)
Championship history: Four Class D titles (most recent 2011), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 62-31 over No. 2 Bellevue in Quarterfinal, 68-56 over No. 4 Marcellus Howardsville Christian in Regional Semifinal, 58-40 over No. 9 Martin in District Final, 62-53 over Muskegon Heights Academy in Regional Final.
Players to watch: Bennett Sinner, 6-0 sr. F (12.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.8 spg); Brayden Ophoff, 5-10 sr. G (11.5 ppg, 42 3-3-pointers).
Outlook: Tri-unity has made at least the Quarterfinals four of the last five seasons and the Semifinals now for the first time since 2016. This Defenders team has the program’s best record since finishing Class D runner-up and going 25-3 in 2013. Tri-unity hasn’t lost since Jan. 22, and two of the defeats came to Division 3 No. 2 Pewamo-Westphalia and honorable mention Potter’s House Christian. Sinner earned an all-state honorable mention last season. Freshman guard Brady Titus adds another 12 ppg.  

PHOTO: Southfield Christian’s Jon Sanders drives to the basket during his team’s Regional Final win over Adrian Lenawee Christian. (Photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)

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.)