Future Set, Livers Aims for 'Giant' Finish

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

November 15, 2016

KALAMAZOO — Letters, text messages and phone calls every single day.

That might sound like a typical teenager, but Isaiah Livers was overwhelmed by all of the above during his junior year at Kalamazoo Central High School.

After committing to University of Michigan on Aug. 7, Livers has already noticed that this basketball preseason is much less stressful.

“Last year, I’d get out of practice and there would be like 10 messages (from coaches), at least, a day,” the 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward said. “Then there’d be a phone call or two.

“Then I’d have to answer their messages, I’d have to call them back one by one. You have to find the time, manage your time, know when to call them back, not to be disrespectful.”

Livers received scholarship offers from more than 25 colleges, but was contacted by a ton more.

“If you don’t like the school, let them know you’re not interested,” he said of whittling down the list. “Sorry, but thanks for recruiting me.”

He’s not the only one whose cell phone was blowing up.

His father, Morris Livers, also was inundated with calls, especially after his son started playing in the Elite Youth Basketball League last May.

“That’s when it got crazy,” his dad said. “After that, my phone died all the time because it rang all the time. Colleges calling, leaving voice mails, dropping offers.”

Once Isaiah committed to Michigan, “I was so happy when it came to that,” his dad said. “I was in my (Gordon Water Systems) work truck and I was like, ‘I’m about tired of all these coaches calling my phone.’”

Navigating the process

Livers honed his court skills at a young age.

His dad, who played basketball at South Haven High School, was working out with his older son, Brandon, when 7-year-old Isaiah started soaking up the instruction.

But it wasn’t until Livers was a freshman that basketball became serious business.

“That’s when the height came,” Morris Livers said. “To me, that’s the X factor. In ninth grade he grew at least six inches, it seemed, overnight. He was at least 6-4, 6-6.”

Central Arkansas was the first college to contact the Livers — when Isaiah was a freshman.

“I remember because it’s the school Scottie Pippen went to,” said Morris Livers, a diehard Chicago Bulls fan.

Most college coaches contacted K-Central coach Ramsey Nichols, Livers’ father or AAU coach Damon Allison before contacting the then-junior.

“They’d tell me, ‘This school is looking at you; they think you’re a great player,’” Livers said. 

Having been through the college recruiting process himself when he played basketball at Benton Harbor High School, Nichols tries to help his players navigate it.

“I know it can be a hassle for them,” said Nichols, who also played at University of Detroit. “So I try to reassure them that it’s just a process, not to get too caught up in it; to make sure you keep things in perspective and to focus on what we need to do.

“It’s a relief to a certain extent when you sign early. You don’t have to worry about where you’re going. You can truly concentrate on winning a state championship with your team or whatever the goals you’ve set for yourself.”

Nichols said the college coaches already knew what Livers brought to the game but they were interested in more than just the athletics side.

“The first thing a lot ask is what kind of a kid he is,” Nichols said. “They ask about his character first. Of course, they are also going to ask how he is academically.

“They see that he can play basketball very well. But those are more important questions, how is he off the court and in the classroom.”

After committing, “It was probably the biggest relief,” Livers said. “I went out to eat and got congratulated. It felt really good.”

Not everyone was that happy about it.

“The (other players) got on me because they said ‘Dang, you committed. That means there’s no more schools flying in here to watch,’” he said, laughing.

“Last year, we had an open gym. (A college coach) walked in and one of my friends said, ‘I like that college; let me work hard.’”

Tasks at hand

Livers, who has played varsity all four years, averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game last season as Kalamazoo Central finished 18-4 and won the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East title.

“This year he’ll be a captain, being one of the elder statesmen now instead of being one of the younger guys,” Nichols said. “I think he’s stepping into that role now pretty well. 

“He’s more vocal now. A lot of the things we go through, he runs it, like some of the drills. He’ll lead guys through, pull the young guys through.”

Senior teammate Jeremiah Vincent said Livers helps his teammates shine as well.

“He can score, rebound, pass,” said Vincent, who hopes to play Division III college ball at Hope or Kalamazoo College. “He’s facilitates the ball real well.

“Once he gets going, he opens up for everybody else so it’s really nice to have him on the team. He’s definitely a really good team player.”

Last season, the Maroon Giants made it to the MHSAA Regional Semifinals before losing to Lansing Everett.

This season, “Everyone’s gonna have to dig deep,” Livers said. “We started off great last year. We were feeling like, ‘We’ve got this.’ I think what we did is we went to our mind and said we’ve got this game already.

“I know that’s what happened. I could see it in the faces when we went to the locker room. This year, we’re not taking anyone for granted. We’re gonna play to the best of our abilities.”

It’s impossible to not dream about the future. Nichols, who coached Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler at Benton Harbor, said Livers has NBA potential.

“It’s obvious he has the ability to play on the next biggest stage by signing to play at the University of Michigan,” he said. “He has worked hard here and improved every year.

“If he continues to put in the hours to develop and hone his skills at the college level, I feel he may get an opportunity to play at the highest level.

“I don't know if he realizes how good he can be. I believe his best years as a basketball player are ahead of him. More importantly, Isaiah is a character guy who is a great teammate and committed to winning. He has done things the right way, so good things are going to follow him.”

And first up is the potential for an excellent high school senior season. This winter before each tipoff, Livers said he will be able to concentrate more on the game that night.

“Last year, pregame you ask yourself, ‘Why are these schools recruiting me; what are they looking for?’” he said.

“But when it comes game time, I think about playing my game. Biggest thing for me is winning. I don’t like losing.”

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Central's Isaiah Livers dunks against Portage Central. (Middle) Livers follows through on a jumpshot. (Below) Clockwise, from top left: Isaiah Livers, Morris Livers, Jeremiah Vincent, Ramsey Nichols. (Action photos by Herbert Todd; head shots by Pam Shebest.) 

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.)