Finally, Clarkston Celebrates in Class A

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 25, 2017

EAST LANSING – After 35 years, nearly 700 wins and three high school gyms, Dan Fife has brought an MHSAA title to his alma mater.

Fife’s Clarkston boys basketball team defeated Grand Rapids Christian 75-69 on Saturday in the Class A Final at the Breslin Center for the first boys basketball title in program history.

“It’s really unexplainable right now,” Fife said. “I really don’t know how to put it. All I know is I’ve been through three high school gyms at Clarkston during my tenure. I’ve said this before, but I really truly meant it: Clarkston’s a special place, I think one because we have one public school in our district. We have great support from our administration, our teachers and our families. I don’t think you can be successful in athletics, especially in today’s world of athletics, if you don’t have that support.”

Fife, who has a 677-169 record at Clarkston, is a 1967 graduate of the school. He took over the program 1982, and in his 35 seasons, only one has ended without a winning record. Even that season included a District title.

“This whole season has been a group journey,” Clarkston all-state junior guard Foster Loyer said. “For my teammates and myself to come out here and win this state championship tonight, it not only means everything to us as players, as a team, as a family; but just knowing we were able to get that done for Coach Fife, it’s what we’ve been dreaming about since we started playing basketball here in Clarkston. It’s just been a phenomenal experience, and we’re loving life right now.”

Loyer, a Michigan State recruit, led all scorers with 29 points on his future home court, shooting 50 percent from the field (8 of 16) and from 3-point range (4 of 8). His future MSU teammate, senior Xavier Tillman, led Grand Rapids Christian with 25 points on 12 of 15 (80 percent) shooting, and grabbed seven rebounds.

“(Loyer) can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he can pass the ball, so it’s kind of like pick your poison when it comes to Foster,” Tillman said. “When we tried to step up, he would drive by, give a pump fake, get the foul, two free throws. It was hard to stop him, and he’s going to be a great player for us later on when it comes to Michigan State.”

Clarkston sophomore Taylor Currie added 16 points and 10 rebounds, while junior C.J. Robinson had 14 points, and senior Dylan Alderson had 12. Grand Rapids Christian juniors Duane Washington, Jr., and Setrick Millner, Jr., added 16 and 11 points, respectively.

“I give Clarkston a lot of credit – they’re well coached, their kids played great, they played hard, and they responded and made shots,” Grand Rapids Christian coach Mark Warners said. “The ball didn’t always go our way, but that’s the way the game goes. They were awesome tonight. We were good, but we weren’t awesome.”

Fife lauded his team’s overall effort in the game, as Robinson’s secondary scoring – specifically 12 second-half points – and ballhandling were able to take pressure off Loyer, and Currie was able to hold his own at times and stay out of foul trouble against Tillman despite giving up more than 50 pounds.

“We knew that (Tillman) is a great force in the paint,” Currie said. “My main focus going into the game was just try to stay in front, knowing I had help in the back. If I could force a pass over the top, it could be a steal. Then when he got the ball, trying to stay straight up and avoid getting into foul trouble. And keeping him off the glass, that was something we really keyed in on because he’s a great rebounder, especially on offense. He uses his body really well, so I was trying to box out as soon as I could.”

Clarkston (27-1) gained the game’s first bit of separation with 3-pointers on four straight possessions to close out the first quarter. Loyer hit three in a row, while Alderson added one at the buzzer to give the Wolves a 20-12 lead.

They led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter, as Loyer opened it with another 3. Grand Rapids Christian (27-1) pulled to within three on a 3-pointer from Tre Vallar in the final minute of the half, but an acrobatic buzzer beater from Robinson gave Clarkston a 34-29 lead heading into the break.

Grand Rapids Christian had a better half from the field, shooting 57.1 percent compared to Clarkston’s 40 percent, but the Wolves held an 8-0 edge in points off turnovers and an 11-2 edge in second-chance points, as they pulled down nine offensive rebounds during the opening 16 minutes.

The hot shooting continued for the Eagles into the third quarter, but they weren’t able to close the gap, as Clarkston was just as hot, hitting 75 percent of its shots in the third quarter and 60 percent in the fourth. The Wolves also shot 14 of 17 from the free throw line (82.4 percent) in the fourth quarter.

“We scored 69 points, so offensively we were fine,” Warners said. “The problem is we gave up 75. The credit goes to, like I said, to Clarkston. We just didn’t have an answer consistently. We’d get a good defensive possession and then we’d come down and not capitalize on it, miss a shot. Then they’d come down and make a shot.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston holds up its Class A championship trophy in celebration after Saturday’s Final. (Middle) Clarkston coach Dan Fife. (Below) Grand Rapids Christian’s Duane Washington, Jr., throws down a dunk. 

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.)