GR Christian Ends 80-year Finals Wait

March 24, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Xavier Tillman stood taller, literally, than anyone else on the court during his team’s Class A Semifinal on Friday at the Breslin Center.

Figuratively as well, the Grand Rapids Christian senior has stood as tall as any of the giants who have dominated the floor in Michigan this season.  

But if Christian wins its first MHSAA championship Saturday since 1938, just as much credit will belong to his supporting cast – even as he called himself not the star, but rather the distributor after they beat Romulus 74-52 to advance to the Final.

Five teammates scored more than Tillman on Friday. But that doesn’t mean the 6-foot-8 forward’s presence was negligible. He took only three shots, scored only five points, but also had eight rebounds, six assists and seven blocks and drew plenty of attention from Romulus to help Christian make its first championship game in 80 years.

“I have a team full of scorers,” Tillman said, “so my job is to facilitate on my team.”

“We’ve always said we have to get the ball in to Xavier and let him make a play, whether it’s for himself or his teammates, or at least draw attention,” Grand Rapids Christian coach Mark Warners added. “Xavier said it; you don’t know who is going to score, and with these guys what’s been great all year is they don’t care.”

Grand Rapids Christian (27-0), No. 1 in Class A at the end of the regular season, will face No. 3 Clarkston at noon Saturday for its first MHSAA title since winning the Lower Peninsula Class B championship in 1938 (from 1932-47, one champion was awarded from each peninsula in Classes B, C and D; in 1943 no statewide champions were awarded).

Romulus (21-5) last had been to Breslin much more recently, winning Class A in 2013. But although it gave a strong challenge into the third quarter this time, no one has stood in Christian’s way for the entirety this season.

Christian opened the third quarter on a 15-3 run over five minutes, as senior James Beck II had six of his game-high 24 points.

“He did keep us in it,” Warners said. “He gets the points where it’s off a rebound or putback, or he gets an and-one on the break and makes the free throw, or he gets the dump down from a guard or Xavier and can score around the rim in so many ways. It’s a really nice thing to have.”

For the game, Beck connected on 11 of 17 shots from the field as Christian made 54 percent as a team.

Romulus hit only 35 percent of its shots from the floor and 31 percent from 3-point range, hindering a team that already had a tough time matching up with more sizable Christian.

“It’s kind’ve a shock. We’ve never gone 8 for 26 from the 3-point line,” Romulus coach Jerret Smith said. “We prided ourselves on hitting shots this year, and when you can’t hit shots it’s hard – especially when you have the kid who’s 6-8, 260 in the lane. It’s very hard to get him out of the lane if you’re not hitting shots.”

Junior guards Duane Washington, Jr., and Setrick Millner, Jr., added 15 and 11 points, respectively, and senior guard Thad Shymanski had 10 for Grand Rapids Christian. Washington also had six assists and senior guard Emmett Warners had five.

Junior Kaevon Merriweather had 18 points to lead Romulus, and senior forward Jaren English had 17 points and eight rebounds. Senior forward Dylan Price added 12 points and nine boards.

Three starters and the top-playing sub from Friday should be back for Romulus next season. Romulus entered the postseason an honorable mention in the Class A poll, but eliminated reigning champion Detroit U-D Jesuit in the Quarterfinal.

“The good thing about this is the foundation has been laid,” Smith said. “We hadn’t been here in four years, and that was a long time for us. I’m so proud of these seniors; all around, they put a lot of work in. … When you get tough losses, you’ve gotta except those too. Grand Rapids Christian was a better team today. We’re not going to make excuses. We’ll just come back and get in the gym, and hopefully next year will be our year.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Christian’s Setrick Millner, Jr., goes in for a dunk during Friday’s Class A Semifinal win. (Middle) Christian’s Xavier Tillman works for position against a pair of Romulus defenders.

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.)