Felix Leaving Hillsdale Having Blazed Path to Statewide Success, Respect

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

September 15, 2021

HILLSDALE – Every time Jordan Bollin would prepare his Dundee Vikings boys basketball team to play Hillsdale, he would rename all of his plays. That’s because Brad Felix, the longtime Hillsdale coach, knew them all.

“He had his teams so prepared,” Bollin said. “We’d call out a play and they would know exactly what we were doing. I had to rename all my plays, then quiz my kids over them before we played them. He’s such a great coach.”

Felix stepped down this week as the Hornets’ head coach, ending a coaching career that spans more than 30 years. 

“I think he is the best coach I’ve coached against,” Bollin said. “When I got the job at (Temperance) Bedford, the first thing I did was call him up and basically interview for an hour, asking about practice plans and this and that.”

Citing a health issue as one of his reasons for retiring, Felix said it was still a difficult choice to make. 

“It is a decision I don’t take lightly,” Felix said. “I feel like there has been a death in my family. The sadness I am feeling is pretty intense.”

Felix didn’t come to Hillsdale from the Upper Peninsula to turn around Hornets boys basketball. But, over the past couple of decades, Felix has helped transform Hillsdale boys hoops into a program known for adding hardware to its trophy case on a regular basis. 

The Bessemer native was a four-sport athlete in high school, but that’s where his playing days ended. He graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette and landed a job teaching in Hillsdale, at the opposite end of the state, within a few miles of the state line. 

Hillsdale basketballIt was the Hillsdale athletic director who approached him about coaching.

“He came to me and said, ‘We need a freshmen girls coach and freshmen boys coach; are you interested?’” Felix said. “The rest is history.”

Felix coached both boys and girls at freshmen and junior varsity levels for several years before landing the varsity girls job with the Hornets. He guided that program from 1998 to 2002. His final season with the girls he also became the boys head coach. He’s coached the Hornets boys for the past 19 seasons.

His teams had success early. Capturing the District title in 2005, in his third season, was a first for the school since the mid-1960s. 

He said reviving the boys basketball program was the carrot in front of him.

“No one would last this long if he or she was not experiencing some success,” Felix said. “That surely had a great deal to do with me hanging on this long. I was determined to change the mindset and the culture here, so that was a driving force. Our basketball history here was not very glorious, and I thought I could change that path.”

He certainly did that.

During his 19 seasons, Hillsdale won nine league championships, eight District titles and two Regional championships. The Hornets were consistently ranked among The Associated Press top 10 and if they weren’t on top of the league, they were competing for league championships. 

His boys teams went 20-0 during the regular season three times and won 20 or more games seven times. In 15 seasons, his teams won at least 14 games. His record as the boys coach was 318-104. Counting his girls varsity tenure as well, he won 369 games. He was a three-time statewide Coach of the Year.

Opposing coaches have long had a ton of respect for Felix and the Hillsdale program.

“His impact on Hillsdale basketball is something many coaches, like me, only could hope for when we are done,” said Onsted boys basketball coach Brad Maska. “The battles we had, Hillsdale vs. Onsted, were some of the best. I will miss that. He made Hillsdale one of the toughest places to go play. He’s a great coach and person.”

Ida boys basketball’s Jared Janssen coached against Hillsdale at least twice every year in the Lenawee County Athletic Association.

“He had an answer for everything you would try to throw at him,” Janssen said. “He is the toughest coach to prepare for.” 

Hillsdale had to overcome its share of obstacles. The Hornets played in four conferences during Felix’s tenure, meaning he often had to learn a new set of opponents. With relatively few schools Hillsdale’s size in that area of the state, the Hornets had to go on the road a lot.

“It is not easy to go to Ida on a Tuesday, get home at 11, hit school the next morning, and then go to Dundee on that same Thursday – only to be back in school again Friday morning,” he said. “Those are taxing weeks for sure.”

There were many great memories on the court, such as coaching seven players who scored 1,000 career points, some surprising District wins, buzzer-beaters and epic defensive battles. The 2013-14 team also appeared in a Class C Quarterfinal. His 24-2 Hornets lost to Muskegon Heights, 59-57.

“We played some really good teams to make it there and then fell two points shy in a game where we were huge underdogs,” Felix said.

The 2004-05 team that went 25-1 also played in a Quarterfinal, in Class B. The lone defeat came that night to eventual champion Grand Rapids South Christian.

“Walking on the court at Grand Valley to play that game was a sight I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was just a sea of maize pom-poms with a sea of opposing white ones on the other side. There were 4,000 fans there. That was a just fun.”

Felix said the love of basketball kept him going year after year.

Hillsdale basketball“The strategy and the relationship with the players have kept me in the game,” he said. “The winning helped, but I loved coaching the game and looked forward to each and every season. The most rewarding part of this job has been the relationships I've built with my players that have extended into their adult lives.”

Two of his former players reside in Colorado, where one worked for the Denver Broncos and the other served as an Olympic trainer.

“They flew me out there for a football game and a tour of the Olympic training center,” Felix said. “I was on the field for an NFL game.”

Felix and his wife, Heather, have been married for more than 25 years and have two children, Claire and Adam. He coached Adam. The end of his son’s career was marred by injury, but Brad Felix said having him be a part of the program was a great experience.

“I did get to coach him in at least one season,” Felix said. “His presence on my bench for 12 seasons was so heartwarming for me – he was in the gym and on our bus since he was 5. I swung him through the air on numerous occasions after big wins. He saw a lot.”

It was in June that Felix had a health scare that he says still isn’t over. He said health impacted his decision but wasn’t the ultimatum. 

“This will be with me for the rest of my life, unfortunately,” he said. “It weighed into my decision based on all the appointments that I may or may not have in the future, missing practices or games and just the added stress is more than likely not advantageous for me right now.

“I’d be in (coaching) longer if the circumstances had allowed me to.”

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) Hillsdale boys basketball coach Brad Felix, right, hugs his son Adam after Adam’s final game last season. (Middle) Brad Felix and his 2013-14 team celebrate a big win during their tournament run. (Below) Felix huddles with his players during another game over his 19 seasons guiding the boys basketball program. (Top and middle photos courtesy of the Hillsdale Daily News; bottom photo courtesy of the Hillsdale athletic department.)

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.)