Freshman Shines As Eagles Repeat in D

March 23, 2013

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING — There was no need for Eugene Brown to sit quietly in the background and ease his way into a prominent role on Southfield Christian's basketball team.

One game was all it took for the freshman guard to prove he belonged on the defending MHSAA Class D Finals champion.

When Brown scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a season-opening overtime victory over traditional Class A power Orchard Lake St. Mary's, it justified coach Josh Baker's decision to put a ninth-grader in the starting lineup of a team with Breslin-or-bust aspirations.

"To come in as a freshman, that's a pretty good first game against a great team," Baker said.

Brown was a mere spectator at the Breslin Center when the Eagles won their first championship last season. He thrived under the bright\ lights on Saturday as Southfield Christian repeated as Class D
champion with a 65-46 victory over Wyoming Tri-unity Christian.

He jump-started the Eagles' championship victory, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the first half and helping Southfield Christian build a 16-point second-quarter lead. Brown shot 5 for 8 from the field,
3 for 3 from the line, grabbed nine rebounds, dished out four assists and had three steals.

Freshman jitters? Not in this kid.

"I just tried to come out and not be nervous," Brown said. "Just play the game like you know how, just go out and do your best."

Baker wasn't concerned how his freshman phenom would respond on the big stage, just as he was confident that Brown could handle making his high school debut against a team like St. Mary's in early December.

"He's usually pretty cool and casual under pressure," Baker said. "Part of that is his problem, because he's not aggressive enough all the time. We wanted him to be aggressive. We've been on him all year to be aggressive. He did it tonight, and he showed he can make plays. He's so skilled as a freshman. When he's aggressive and he keeps the ball low, he's really good."

As Brown started sinking shots during a decisive second quarter, the Southfield Christian student section chanted, "He's a fresh-man!" It was a warning to the rest of Class D that Brown will have to be reckoned with for three more seasons. For that matter, the entire program could dominate Class D for years to come.

It's not too early to begin speculation that Southfield Christian is a dynasty in the making. Winning back-to-back championships is an excellent start. All 65 of the Eagles' points against Tri-unity were scored by players who are eligible to return next season.

The team's only two seniors didn't play until a 58-40 lead had been built midway through the fourth quarter.  The Eagles started a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors.

"We can only get better," said 6-7 junior Damarco White, who had 15 points and five blocks.

"The sky's the limit," added junior guard Lindsey Hunter IV, who scored 11 points.

A man who is an expert on Class D dynasties is Mark Keeler, who has coached four MHSAA Finals champions and four runners-up in his 26 seasons at Tri-unity.

"Seeing how young their team is, they're definitely going to be a force in Class D," said Keeler (499-142), who was trying to celebrate a Finals championship and his 500th victory on the same day.

The Eagles rebuilt on the fly after winning the title last year. Their returning players combined for only 12 points in last year's MHSAA Final, with Hunter scoring eight of them.

After a 3-4 start, Southfield Christian won its final 20 games.

"We knew we had the potential. It's just that early on we struggled with understanding the work ethic you have to put in," Baker said. "It's not just handed to you. Every game you play, every team is going to come after you. That's why we started off 3-4. We just got drilled by some guys. When they understood the work ethic and what it takes every game, we started to go on a nice run."

Tri-unity (25-3) got out to an 8-6 lead, but Southfield Christian took the lead for good by scoring the next nine points to ignite a 26-8 run. The lead reached 34-18 with 3:48 left in the second quarter. The Eagles didn't score the rest of the half, while the Defenders cut the margin to 34-23 at the intermission.

Matt Wachter's basket with 7:04 left in the third quarter trimmed the deficit to single digits at 34-25, but Tri-unity didn't put together consecutive scores again until Southfield Christian was comfortably ahead, 56-34.

Tri-unity forward Joey Blauwkamp, The Associated Press' Class D Player of the Year, was held to seven points on 2 for 9 shooting before fouling out with 2:38 left in the game.

"For us coming into halftime, being down only 11, I wasn't too concerned," Keeler said. "But when Joey picked up three and four (fouls) so quickly, it definitely messes with you."

Sophomore Bakari Evelyn scored 11 points for Southfield Christian, which shot 22 for 42 from the field and 17 for 21 from the line.

Daniel Cole scored 21 points and Wachter 11 for Tri-unity.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Southfield Christian coach Josh Baker presents the championship trophy to his team Saturday at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Eagles freshman Eugene Brown goes up for a shot against Wyoming Tri-unity Christian's Joey Blauwkamp (4) and others. (Click to see more at

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.)