Frankfort Advances in Memorable Fashion

March 14, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Either way late in Friday night’s Division 4 Semifinal, Frankfort was headed to the record book.

For most of the first three quarters, it seemed the Panthers were cruising toward reaching the MHSAA championship round for the first time.

Then, over six minutes of game time, they found themselves running the risk of being on the wrong end of the largest comeback in Finals weekend history.

After senior Ethan Ness’ free throw with eight seconds left on the clock, and then one more stop on the other end of the court, Frankfort emerged with a 44-43 win over Wyoming Tri-unity Christian to reach the final day of the season for the first time in this sport.

The Panthers will take on Southfield Christian in Saturday’s first Final at 10 a.m., after a day to recover from also watching a 23-point lead dissolve between the third and fourth quarters.

“We trust our teammates. If we go down, we get ready, we get back up, and we trust everyone on this team,” Frankfort sophomore guard Jack Stefanski said. “Everyone is here for a reason. We’ll fight through anything.

“This has never happened in Frankfort history for boys, and no one thought we’d be good this year. … We knew we had to step up this year, with a new coach and new players. We had to start our legacy, and this is how we started.”

And for all the reasons mentioned above, it was unforgettable.

Frankfort (21-5) did graduate its top six players from last season, and coach Dan Loney did take the program over this winter after previously serving as an assistant. The Panthers did finish second in the annually-strong Northwest Conference – but then lost to sub-.500 Buckley in the regular-season finale and needed overtime wins twice to get to Breslin Center.

Thursday’s start, against a Tri-unity program with four Class D championships and four more runner-up finishes, was truly impressive. In part with a 10-0 run to finish the first half, Frankfort took a 26-12 advantage into the break, then opened the third quarter with nine more consecutive points to make it 35-12 with 2:22 to go in the period.  

But longtime Tri-unity coach Mark Keeler had a card or two left to play – namely, a defensive press that contributed to 10 Frankfort turnovers over an ensuing 27-2 comeback.

“I’ve had that happen before, having coached as long as I have. The key is we need to focus on defense – but saying it and doing it are two different things,” said Keeler, who has led the team to 599 wins over 32 seasons.

“When we went to the press … they finally made up their minds that they wanted to give it everything they had. All of a sudden they were focused on defense, not focused on offense, and that takes the pressure off. You relax, and all of a sudden you’re getting shots to fall.”

The Defenders (22-4) took a 39-37 lead on senior Elijah Badgero’s basket with 4:08 to play.

But like in nine other games won by six or fewer points this season, Frankfort came through. First, senior guard Will Newbold tied the score with 3:26 to play. Ness gave the Panthers a three-point lead at 2:39 with a long-range shot, and Newbold made the margin four with a free throw with 55 seconds left.

They needed every one of those points, as Tri-unity senior Brayden Ophoff and freshman Brady Titus sunk buckets to bring the score even at 43-43 with 20 seconds to play. But Ness was fouled on the next possession and connected on one of two free-throw tries to take back the lead once more. A group of Panthers held their ground in the lane on Tri-unity’s final attempt for the win, and Frankfort celebrated.

“I’m not sure why it keeps coming down to this,” Loney said. “We knew they would make a run at some point tonight. It was not going to be a blowout by any means. When they brought that full court pressure, it rattled the guys a little bit.

“(But) these guys have found ways to win close games all year. They’re a resilient bunch, no matter what the score is. I can’t tell you guys how many close games we’ve had like this this year, and these kids have stepped up to the plate and ended with a win.”

Newbold led the Panthers with 16 points and four steals. Ness finished with 11 points and six rebounds, Stefanski had seven points and 13 rebounds and senior forward Jack Reznich had five assists and six rebounds.

Senior Bennett Sinner led Tri-unity with 16 points and six steals, and grabbed eight rebounds. Badgero had 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankfort’s Ethan Ness (22) sets up the offense while Brady Titus defends. (Middle) Jack Stefanski (0) looks for an open teammate Thursday with Brayden Ophoff applying pressure.

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.)