Ewen-Trout Creek Starts Fast, Holds On to Reach 1st Final Since 1982

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

March 24, 2022

EAST LANSING – What began playing out early like a certain blowout turned into quite a thriller to begin Thursday’s Division 4 Boys Basketball Semifinals at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.

Making its first Semifinals trip since since finishing Class D runner-up 1982, Ewen-Trout Creek was in full control in the first Division 4 matchup of the night with a double-digit lead for the majority of the game. 

But appearing in its first-ever Semifinal, Lake Leelanau St. Mary pulled off a furious comeback, tying the game with just over two minutes remaining.

Ultimately, Ewen-Trout Creek made more plays from there, holding off St. Mary to earn a 62-56 win and advance to its first championship game since it won the Class D title in 1972. 

“Wow,” Ewen-Trout Creek coach Brad Besonen said. “That was fantastic. High school sports at its finest. Two small schools on the big stage at Breslin Center. These guys have dreamed about being here forever. They’ve played together since second grade.”

After trailing 48-31 with 1:55 remaining in the third quarter, St. Mary began its rally, mainly because it finally found some rhythm offensively. 

Ewen-Trout Creek/Lake Leelanau St. Mary basketballSt. Mary scored the final six points of the third quarter to make it 48-37, but Ewen-Trout Creek restored its lead to 12 at 54-42 with 6:13 remaining. 

Then, the Eagles made their big move. 

St. Mary went on a 14-2 run over the next 4:11 to tie the game at 56-56 with 2:02 remaining.

The comeback wasn’t anything new to the Eagles, who trailed by 18 in the second half of their District Final against Buckley and by 12 points in the final five minutes of their Regional Final against McBain Northern Michigan Christian before rallying to win both games. 

“They just have no quit in them,” St. Mary coach Matt Barnowski said.

But down the stretch, Ewen-Trout Creek regained its composure.

Senior Jaden Borseth gave the Panthers a 58-56 lead with 1:46 remaining, and after St. Mary had 3-point shots rim out on back-to-back possessions, Ewen-Trout Creek took a lead with 33.8 seconds left on two free throws by senior Kelsey Jilek.

Following another missed 3-pointer by St. Mary, Borseth made two free throws with 8.2 seconds remaining to make it 62-56 Panthers.  

Jilek led the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds, Borseth scored 18 points and senior Eric Abramson added 15 points for Ewen-Trout Creek (23-3), which had its eye on this year the minute last season ended with a loss to Bessemer in the District round.

“We were in the gym the day after we lost,” Jilek said. “We wanted more than anything to make a run last year. We put everything we had into it, and here we are.”

St. Mary junior Shawn Bramer led all scorers with 25 points to go along with eight rebounds, and Schaub added 14 points to lead St. Mary (21-5). 

The Eagles started the season 2-3, then went 19-2 the rest of the way to make school history.

“That was a fun game,” Barnowski said. “Everybody got their money’s worth, there’s no doubt about that. I’m proud of these kids.” 

Ewen-Trout Creek got off to a good start offensively, making nine of its first 15 shots and taking a 20-14 lead after the first quarter.

Leading 24-18 in the second quarter, the Panthers started to separate, going on an 11-2 run to take a 35-20 advantage with 1:08 remaining before halftime.

The Panthers eventually took a 37-22 lead into the break.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Ewen-Trout Creek's Eric Abramson lays up a shot during his team's Division 4 Semifinal win Thursday. (Middle) St. Mary's Shawn Bramer (32) works to split the defense of Kelsey Jilek (24) and Brendan Polkky (44). (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)