Ford's Drive Ends With School's 1st Title

March 26, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – The final celebration of the 2015-16 Michigan high school basketball season started during the final seconds when a Detroit Henry Ford assistant coach slapped hands of everyone sitting on the bench.

After the buzzer, the crowd moved to the south end of the Breslin Center floor, before players and coaches arm in arm made their way upcourt to the opposite baseline and into position to receive the first MHSAA championship trophy in school history. 

Saturday night’s Class B Final was guaranteed to produce a first-time winner in boys basketball. It ended up being the team that fell just one victory short the season before – from a school that had never won a title in any sport in Finals competition.

Henry Ford, runner-up in 2015, is champion in 2016 thanks to a 61-47 win over Stevensville Lakeshore, which like the Trojans entered the postseason unranked but more than topped that expectation.

“Ever since the loss, we’ve been preparing in the gym to get back here, and not just to get here but to win it,” Henry Ford senior guard James Towns said. “It took a lot of work to get back here. It’s almost like losing everything when you get back here and lose.

“This year they doubted us; nobody had us winning. We were the bottom of Class B, and we came up here and proved them wrong.”

Henry Ford became the 13th school from the prestigious Detroit Public School League to win an MHSAA boys basketball title, giving the league two in two seasons after Detroit Western International also won its first boys hoops championship in 2015, in Class A.

The Trojans (20-6) fell in last season’s Class B Final 85-68 to Wyoming Godwin Heights, another first-time champion at the time.

This trip, Henry Ford was faced with multiple styles, first charged with shutting down guard-driven Williamston in the Semifinal (which it did 70-48) and then matched against a Lakeshore team boasting 6-foot-11 senior Braden Burke and 6-7 junior Max Gaishin. The tallest players in Ford’s regular rotation were 6-4.

Burke and Gaishin both had four points as Lakeshore stayed within a point during the first quarter, trailing 11-10 at the break. But they were unable to have an effect during a second quarter that saw the Lancers make only 1 of 7 shots from the floor and turn the ball over five times as Ford went on a 16-3 run to open up a 14-point advantage by halftime.

Burke and Gaishin would still lead a Lakeshore run. Burke had seven points and Gaishin four during the third quarter as their team cut into Ford’s lead substantially. The Trojans led 34-28 with a quarter to play. Another Burke bucket made the margin six again at 36-30 with 7:17 left on the clock.

“It’s a shame we got ourselves down in the first half. I’m not sure we reacted as well as we needed to the physicality of the ballgame in the first half,” Lakeshore coach Sean Schroeder said. “The second half, I think we did. We were one or two plays from really getting ourselves back in it.

“We had the momentum. If we get a stop, cut it to four, maybe it gets more interesting.”

Instead, Ford hustled to create its breakaway moment after Lakeshore did just about everything possible to prevent it. 

After Burke's basket, a 3-pointer by sophomore Deonta Ulmer pushed the Trojans’ lead back to nine. Towns stole the ball on Lakeshore’s ensuing possession and pushed it into the post, where Burke and Gaishin blocked consecutive shots.

But 6-3 junior Malik Harris came up with the ball after the second block and moved it to Towns, who found senior Jeremy Crawley in the corner for a back-breaking 3-pointer that pushed Ford’s advantage to 42-30.

“We gave up so much size all season. You can’t question the size of our hearts though,” Ford coach Kenneth Flowers said. “These guys play with so much passion, so much desire, and understand that the game is really won in the trenches. These guys always battle, always played against bigger guys, but they knew how to be tough down there.”

Burke, who scored a game-high 19 points, continued to battle and got the deficit back to seven with 1:48 to play. But nine of the game’s final 11 shots were made Trojans free throws.

Crawley scored 18 points, and Towns closed his high school career with 15 points and three assists. Senior forward Alston Hunter, who with Towns started on last year’s team, had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Ford outrebounded Lakeshore 30-19 and had 17 second-chance points.

Senior guard Logan Steffes added 10 points for Lakeshore, and Gaishin finished with nine points, five rebounds and two blocks.

The Lancers were playing in their second MHSAA Final and also finished Class B runner-up in 2012. They will graduate seven including four starters.

“When this class was growing up, we knew we had Braden and we knew we had Logan coming through,” Schroeder said. “But to see the development of some of these other kids, we had a tremendous senior class, a tremendous amount of leadership.

“A kid like Logan Steffes, who has put so much time and energy into this program. You saw at the end, he was trying to will us to win the game. He steals it, misses the shot, gets the ball back, misses. He wanted badly to win that game.”

Click for the full box score

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Henry Ford players celebrate their first MHSAA championship in any sport Saturday. (Middle) The Trojans' James Towns soars as he prepares to launch.

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.)