Jets' Streak Withstands Mightiest Challenge

March 23, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Seth Polfus might still be giggling and shaking his head. He couldn’t believe it either.

Southfield Christian was going to be the greatest threat so far to Powers North Central’s nation-leading 81-game winning streak. Anyone closely following the Jets’ record-setting run knew it.

But no one would’ve guessed Polfus – a 5-foot-9 senior guard, the team’s fifth-leading scorer, coming off three missed jumpers – would be the one to finish victory 82.

With four seconds to play in Thursday’s first Class D Semifinal, the team’s Mr. Basketball finalist double covered, and history seemingly hanging in the Breslin Center air, North Central’s Dawson Bilski sent a halfcourt pass deep to Polfus, who bobbled the ball at the baseline. Recovering, he somehow got up a shot around outstretched arms with one tenth of a second on the clock – and it dropped to give the Jets an 84-83 double overtime victory that could well be remembered as the game of this Finals weekend, even though no title was awarded for winning it.

Regardless, it surely will be remembered as the defining game of North Central’s winning streak, however long it lasts. Southfield Christian won three straight Class D titles from 2012-14, and then played in Class C the last two seasons while the Jets built their legacy. After last season’s Finals, this school year’s classifications were released showing the Eagles headed back to Class D.

“We knew if we made it to this point, they’d be there,” said Jets senior Jason Whitens, that Mr. Basketball finalist. “So everything from that point was getting better each day, preparing for that but not overlooking any opponent because you never know when something’s going to slip up, and teams are after you. We’ve got a big target on our back, and we got the job done.”

North Central (27-0) will next face Buckley in Saturday’s 10 a.m. Class D Final.

Polfus will have a busy weekend. A 4.0 student, he’ll later that afternoon accept one of 32 MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards for his achievements as an all-around athlete and student.

But he wrote his legend with that most improbable shot, the basket of a lifetime for a player who tore a knee ligament two seasons ago and spent last year’s Breslin run mostly holding down the bench.

“I didn’t know how much time was on the clock. I didn’t even know I shot it,” Polfus said. “We set up that play and Dawson was going to be coming down the court, and I knew I was going to be in that position because they were going to go double (Whitens down the sideline), and the ball was coming and I was ‘Oh man, it’s actually coming at me right now.’ And then I lost (the ball) … and I didn’t really know where I was. And then I saw the 6-4 kid coming at me, pump-faked him like I always do when I’m really scared. And then just launched it, and I saw it hit off the rim, thought it was an air ball, and then I just didn’t know what happened.”

“I saw him go wide open,” Bilski added, “and I have enough trust in Seth – I grew up with him – I knew he was going to get the job done.”

Needless to say, none of what happened past halfcourt was coach Adam Mercier’s plan. 

“I think one thing that summarizes these guys, and they’ve always been this way, is that they’re good at adapting,” Mercier said. “You run sets and plays, and sometimes you get in the way coaching. (But) sometimes you let kids make mistakes, and you let kids make plays.”

The Jets had to make a few. Southfield Christian led by 10 with two minutes to go in the third quarter, only to see the Jets tie it back up with a 14-4 run to end the period.

The two teams went back and fourth during the fourth, with the Eagles pushing the game to overtime on sophomore Harlond Beverly’s free throw with six seconds to go in regulation.

“We had a couple chances, they had a couple chances to put it away,” Southfield Christian coach Josh Baker said. “That’s kinda what we’re used to with these guys and the work ethic they put in.”

Southfield Christian got up by three at the end of the first overtime, but Whitens drained a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to push the game to a second extra period. As that one wound down, the Jets led 82-80 with 20 seconds to go after a Bilski blocked shot and free throw.

But Eagles senior Brock Washington fearlessly drilled a 3-pointer with 10 seconds to play, pushing his team ahead by one and setting up Polfus’ dramatic moment. 

“That’s what you want in the playoffs, what you want in the final four – a great game, a great matchup,” Washington said. “We’ll all look back one day and we’ll all be proud of what we did, but we all wanted to get that win.

“Everybody was prepared. Everybody was ready for the challenge. We’ve just gotta make the extra play.”

All five starters scored in double figures for the Eagles (21-6). Junior Bryce Washington had 23 points and Beverly had 22, seven assists and six steals, while Brock Washington added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Trenton Temple had 10 points and 10 rebounds, and sophomore guard Caleb Hunter had 11 points and also seven assists.

Four other Jets average at least 10 points a game, and Polfus finished fifth in the points column again with seven (just above his 5.5 ppg average). Whitens had 31 points and 10 rebounds, Bilski added 23 points and 12 boards, and senior Bobby Kleiman had 14 points and eight rebounds. Polfus was the only starter who didn’t play the full 40 minutes, sitting for a mere three. 

“I think win or lose tonight, they guys have already built their legacy. They didn’t need to win this game to prove anything,” Mercier said. “I’m just so happy for our guys to overcome. I know a lot of people have doubts about us, and deservedly so. We’re a small Class D school with 115 kids, so a lot of people discredit our 81-game winning streak up to this point, because who have you beat?

“That was a question mark coming in. So these kids played the underdog role. At the same time, we’re the two-time defending state champs, we’ve won that many games in a row and we deserve to be here as well. I was just so elated at pushback by our kids tonight … just that pushback, because how many games did we have single digits (during this streak)? So how are our kids going to respond? Those were the questions coming in. And these kids answered them tonight.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Central teammates carry Seth Polfus down the court after his game-winning shot Thursday. (Middle) The Jets’ Jason Whitens works for an opening while the Eagles’ Brock Washington (left) and Harlond Beverly defend. 

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.)