Facing Rare Deficit, Grand Blanc Finds Way to Finish

By Jason Schmitt
Special for MHSAA.com

April 8, 2021

EAST LANSING — Sixteen games into the season, on the state’s biggest stage, and Grand Blanc head coach Mike Thomas is still learning things about his basketball team.

The Bobcats had surrendered the lead to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern after building a 12-point cushion just minutes earlier. They hadn’t come back from a second-half deficit this season. The games they had trailed in, they lost. So it was all new to Thomas.

“I didn’t know that,” said Thomas, speaking to whether his players had it in them to bounce back after facing adversity. “This is the first time we’ve been down, other than in our losses. Truthfully I didn’t know.”

Well now he does. Grand Blanc battled back and found a way to get it done against the Huskies, pulling out a 68-58 victory in a Division 1 Semifinal on Thursday at the Breslin Center. The Bobcats led the entire first half and stretched the lead to 42-30 after senior RJ Taylor found junior Ty Rodgers inside for a dunk with 6:59 to play.

But what seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the Huskies proved to be a wake-up call. 

Northern would score the game’s next 15 points. Senior Ethan Erickson got things going with a short jump shot in the paint. Less than a minute later, senior Gavin Fisher hit a 3-pointer, and followed it up with a layup on the break and another 3-pointer to cut the lead to two points. Grand Blanc would turn the ball over on its next two possessions, with Northern senior Trinidad Chambliss scoring on a layup and senior Cole Rynbrandt hitting a 3-pointer to give his team its first lead, 45-42.

“We had a great run in the third quarter to take the lead,” Northern head coach Joe Soules said. “We were in control of that game. And we’re sitting there going, ‘We’re going to be just fine.’ We’ve talked about it all year, ‘Be in the moment.’ The guys battled back just the way they were supposed to.”

2021 D1 Boys Basketball Semifinal - Grand Blanc

But the Huskies couldn’t maintain that momentum. Grand Blanc stopped the bleeding with a pair of Rodgers free throws, and proceeded to close the quarter with a 9-5 run to take a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Bobcats then scored the first seven points of the fourth to pull away from the Huskies. Sophomore Timonte Boyd opened the run with a layup — off a pass from Taylor — and sophomore Amont’e Allen-Johnson extended the lead to six with his 3-pointer. Rodgers capped it off by collecting a defensive rebound and sprinting down the court and finishing with a layup to make it a 58-50 game.

“It’s just heart,” Rodgers said of his team’s comeback. “Every day in practice, we work on situations, like us only being up by two with such and such many seconds left. We have a lot of heart, and our guys trust in me and RJ as leaders and we push each other. When someone’s not making their shots, we lift each other up.”

Rodgers finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while dishing out six assists. He set the tone early, with a hard drive to the basket for the game’s first score. Grand Blanc jumped out to a commanding 10-0 lead in the first 2:15 of the game.

“We don’t have anyone who quite matches up with (Rodgers), Soules said. “Not many teams in the state do. He’s a wonderful player, a great athlete. He got to the rim and exploded a couple of times. We just couldn’t contain that. Cole (Rynbrandt) and Ethan Morello did a phenomenal job of staying in front of him. He gets to the rim, almost at will, against high school competition with his frame.”

Taylor finished with 16 points and seven assists, and Boyd added 15 points for Grand Blanc (14-2). 

“Our guys fought and clawed, they overcame some adversity today,” Thomas said. “But they hung in there and stayed together. We talked about if things don’t go well, ‘You guys better get together and push each other up because you’re going to need it.’ They didn’t fold when they could have. They clawed back into the game and put things together to accomplish their goals.”

The Bobcats will take on Ann Arbor Huron (20-0) in Saturday’s Division 1 Final, set to tip off at 12:30 p.m.

Erickson led Northern with 19 points, while Fisher and Chambliss added 16 and 13, respectively. The Huskies finished the season 17-2.

“This was the greatest four-year stretch in Forest Hills Northern history,” Soules said. “We won three straight conference championships, multiple Districts and it’s only the second time we’ve ever been to the Breslin. It’s been so fun watching these young men mature, especially over the last 18 months. These seniors have been tremendous ambassadors, not only for Forest Hills Northern but for the game of basketball.”

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PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc's Ty Rodgers (23) goes in for a dunk during Thursday's Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Forest Hills Northern's Trinidad Chambliss gets to the rim. (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.)