De La Salle Continues Championship Year with 1st Hoops Title

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 26, 2022

EAST LANSING – Triston Nichols has had quite the high school sports season so far.

The Warren De La Salle Collegiate junior standout helped the football team win a Finals championship in the fall and then helped deliver the same result on the hardwood four months later.

The Pilots pulled away in the fourth quarter to defeat 2021 champion Grand Blanc 67-58 in Saturday’s Division 1 title game at the Breslin Center.  

It was De La Salle’s first Finals basketball title. The Pilots finished Class B runners-up in 1982. 

“I actually brought (my football championship ring) with me, and I think it’s my good luck charm,” said Nichols, who had 17 points, including two timely 3-pointers in the second half, and five rebounds. 

De La Salle/Grand Blanc basketball“It was definitely harder to win this one than football, and we went through adversity and we just did our job throughout the season. We locked in, and our connection got better and better.”

While there were high expectations that the football team could win a championship in the fall, duplicating that feat in basketball seemed unlikely after De La Salle finished fourth in the Detroit Catholic League Central and lost four of its last six games in the regular season.

Pilots’ junior Nino Smith, who led a balanced scoring attack with 18 points, said the rigors of their league helped prepare them for this historic run.

“Earlier in the season we went to double overtime against (Orchard Lake) St. Mary’s and showed a lot of resiliency even though we came up short,” Smith said. “A lot of games in the Catholic League came down to last possessions, so I think that really helped us.”

De La Salle (19-7) led 27-24 at the half, but watched its lead evaporate as Grand Blanc pulled away with a 14-4 surge and went up 38-31 midway through the third quarter.

The Pilots countered with a 10-0 run to regain the lead as senior Tamario Adley converted back-to-back three-point plays during that stretch.

Adley finished with 12 points and was 6-of-6 from the free throw line.

“The kids were able to fight through adversity and it’s in their mental make-up to continue to fight, and the last few comebacks have gone our way,” De La Salle coach Gjon Djokaj said.

The Pilots held a slim 42-40 lead entering the final quarter, but never relinquished it thanks to several clutch plays and made free throws.

“We made winning plays down the stretch, and I thought overall we got contributions from a lot of different players at different times,” Djokaj said. “That’s what we’ve been built on all season long, and I’m happy to be going out with a state championship and the way we got here.”

De La Salle/Grand Blanc basketballJunior guard RJ Taylor kept the Bearcats (21-5) within striking distance in the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 28 points and seven 3-pointers.

“He's a heck of a player and made it tough on us,” Djokaj said. “He made individual-effort plays that I haven't seen in a while from one player. He should hold his head up high for the way he competed and carried his team.”

Tae Boyd added 14 points and eight rebounds for Grand Blanc, which won its first Finals basketball title a year ago. 

“This was an unbelievable run, and everybody counted this team out from the beginning of the year. Nobody believed in this team,” Grand Blanc coach Mike Thomas said. “I take my hat off because they were out there fighting for themselves, and I take my hat off to Warren De La Salle too, and their student section. That was an unbelievable crowd to where I think that was a really great advantage for them, and they created a lot of emotion and momentum.

“They deserved to win. They outplayed us and outworked us and made more free throws in the end.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Warren De La Salle players raise their championship trophy Saturday at Breslin Center. (Middle) The Pilots’ Michael Sulaka (33) attempts to redirect a shot by Grand Blanc’s Tae Boyd (1). (Below) De La Salle’s Nino Smith (0) is defended by the Bobcats’ RJ Taylor (10). Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)