Erie Mason Climbs to Championship Level

February 15, 2019

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

ERIE – When Kevin Skaggs was named the boys varsity basketball coach at Erie Mason, he immediately got on the phone and started asking questions.

After more than two decades coaching basketball, Skaggs was about to embark on something new – high school basketball.

“All of my 22 years was in college coaching,” he said. “I reached out to a lot of different high school coaches, coaches that I had known over the years. … It’s mind-boggling how you have to fit all of the pieces together to build a program.”

Whatever those coaches told Skaggs, he should box it up and sell it.

Skaggs took over an Erie Mason program that occasionally had success but was often the team on the schedule other schools wanted to face. Those days are just a memory now. In his eighth season, Skaggs has become the school’s all-time winningest coach, recently leading the team to its first-ever outright Lenawee County Athletic Association championship. His team also is in the midst of a 13-game winning streak, the longest in school history.

What’s more is the success doesn’t appear to be a blip on the screen. Mason has had five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in school history and its top scorer – the top scorer in Monroe County – is just a junior.

“I think we are starting to make (other schools) believe,” Skaggs said. “We want to be one of those opponents that when we walk into the gym, other teams say, ‘oh, no,’ instead of ‘oh, boy.’”

Those days are here. Earlier this week, Mason knocked off Petersburg-Summerfield, 64-44, in a non-league game. The Bulldogs came into Erie with a 15-0 record and a top 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll but were handled by the Eagles.

Mason followed that win with an 89-50 victory Thursday over Hudson to clinch the outright LCAA championship, the first since they joined the LCAA in 1988.

Erie Mason has a Saturday date this week with LCAA rival Dundee with a chance to improve to 15-2 on the season. Mason hasn’t won 15 games in a season since 2003-04 and has done so only three times since the school debuted in 1961-62.

All of the wins, high-powered offenses (Mason averages 67 points a game and has made 126 3-pointers as a team) can be traced back to when Skaggs first got to Mason and, on the advice of coaching friends, started a youth basketball program, the Junior Eagles. Those first-year kids eight years ago are now the ones Skaggs sees in the huddle during timeouts.

“They are from that first group of our youth program, and you can get a sense of that,” he said. “They love basketball. That was a big step for us.”

Skaggs, 63, brought together others in the community to put together the youth program for boys and girls. While Mason has had success in other sports – the football team won the Class C championship in 1987 – basketball had lagged behind. Now, he said, that culture has changed. It happened, he said, because student-athletes started loving the game of basketball.

“What you want to teach is to teach them to have fun with the game,” he said. “If you get the kids to fall in love with the sport, they will pursue it. You want to be able to keep kids interested and with a ball in their hands.”

The program aims at teaching the game, making sure kids have fun and, then, around the fifth- and sixth-grade level, increase the competitiveness. By middle school, the basketball players are able to compete with other teams on the Mason schedule. By high school, they are used to success and hungry for more.

“Our eight-grade team had a tremendous year, and our seventh-grade team was pretty good,” Skaggs said. “It’s starting to cycle through, which is wonderful to watch.”

Skaggs also said he’s noticed that athletes aren’t leaving the district to go play for other schools like was once the case.

“We’re keeping our players in our school,” he said. 

Skaggs earned his master’s degree in sports administration and bachelor’s degree in social work at Western Michigan University, where he met coach Dick Shilts. He was directing Christian-based basketball camps in Michigan and Ohio before becoming an assistant coach at Kalamazoo Valley Community College under Shilts and enjoying monumental success. After six years there, he became head coach at Alma College from 1995 to 2001, going 53-98. His second Alma team went 14-12 and won a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament game for the first time in school history. After moving to Erie, Skaggs got an assistant coaching job at Owens Community College in northwest Ohio. He was an assistant five years with the Express, including three years as a volunteer coach, before becoming the head coach.

In 2011, he was named the head coach at Erie Mason, a school just north of the Ohio border that had just a handful of winning seasons in its history.

“Mason was a no-brainer. I was 55 and getting a little tired of getting on a bus and going three to four hours away for a game,” he said. “Plus, my son was playing and I was missing watching him.”

His family has been a major part of his run at Mason. Sons Isaac and Jacob have both either played or coached with him his entire time at Mason.

“What’s a better place to start than with your family?” he said.

He also found community members Tom Banachowski and Brad Liedel to serve as assistant coaches. He delegates what he calls “meaningful responsibility” to his assistants to help the workload and to build continuity in the program. One thing he doesn’t delegate is the Eagles’ offense.

“I’m greedy when it comes to offense,” he said. “That’s mine. There’s nothing like watching an offense that moves the ball and goes. It’s exciting and fun to watch.”

For the past couple of seasons, the Eagle most fun to watch has been Joe Liedel. The 5-foot-11 junior recently moved into second place on the school’s all-time scoring list. With 1,229 points through 16 games this season, he’s well within reach of the school’s career leader, J.P. Horne (1,455 points).

“If Joe Liedel was 6-foot-3, every Division I school would be calling on him,” Skaggs said. “He’s one of the most complete kids I’ve coached in 35 years – and I don’t say that easily.”

Liedel has been sensational this season. He’s the top scorer in the LCAA, and has had games of 41, 37, 37, 34 and 31 while shooting 51.4 percent from the floor, 86.9 percent from the free throw line and leading the team in assists and steals.

“He’s really a complete player, offense and defense,” Skaggs said. “When he thinks there is a weakness in his game, he identifies it and works on it. He’s always been good at shooting, but now he can get to the basket. It adds to his game.”

Liedel isn’t a one-man show, however. Senior Jake Trainor averages 13.6 points a game, while senior brothers Bryan Sweeney (10.6 points a game) and John Sweeney (8.3 points, 6.3 rebounds a game) have played major roles as well.

When they get to the postseason, Erie Mason will be trying to win its first District championship in 46 years. The 1972-73 team won District and Regional championships. It won’t be easy as the Division 3 District at Blissfield is loaded with talented teams, including Summerfield (15-1), perennial power Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (11-3) and Clinton, which just knocked off 10th-ranked Quincy.

Skaggs is drawing on his college coaching days to keep his players focused on next-level goals.

“Our first goal was to win the LCAA, and we’ve done that,” he said. “Next, it’s the District. Every game we play in now is a test to get ready for the state tournament. You have to keep the focus on one game at a time. We’ve been able to do that. We’re still having fun.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Joe Liedel moved into second place on the Erie Mason all-time scoring list this season. (Middle) Coach Kevin Skaggs has led the Eagles to rare success including an outright league title this season. (Top photo by Vanessa Ray.)

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.)