Johnston Finds Home with Onsted Hoops

March 13, 2020

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

ONSTED – When Mary Kay LaFerney moved from California to Michigan, she had no idea the impact a group of freshmen and sophomore boys were going to have on her son.

And she certainly didn’t know it would be because of basketball.

But that’s what happened this past season for LaFerney and her son, Zachary Johnston, at Onsted High School in Lenawee County. Johnston, 15, who has Down syndrome, wanted to be part of the junior varsity basketball team. The JV head coach Travis Wobrock was on board with the idea.

“He came to every practice and every game,” Wobrock said.

Johnston didn’t mind filling water bottles, grabbing towels or throwing out basketballs. He would also often take part in layup lines at the start of practice and shoot baskets when he could. It didn’t take long before Johnston made a request.

“He said he wanted a jersey,” Wobrock said.

The Onsted junior varsity team members had bigger ideas for Johnston. They wanted him to play in a game.

“Every week, one of the kids on the team would come to me and ask when Zach was going to get his chance,” Wobrock said. “They wanted this to happen so bad.”

As the season drew closer to the finish, Wobrock put the plan in motion. He contacted Clinton junior varsity basketball coach Greg Dutton and told him about Zachary. Dutton was instantly in favor of helping Johnston get into the action.

“When I played at Napoleon, we had a team manager, Alex DeNato, who had Down syndrome,” Dutton said. “He never had the opportunity to get a basket in one of our games, but he would lead us in pre-game speeches and occasionally led us out of the locker room for pre-game warmups.”

The Onsted players decided to wrap Zachary’s jersey up and present it to him a couple of days before the game vs. Clinton.

“He got into the car, and he was smiling,” LaFerney said. “He was carrying a bag. I asked him what was in the bag. He said, ‘Take a peek.’ He was so excited to have a jersey.”

Wobrock videotaped the moment Johnston opened his jersey and posted it on social media. Thousands of people viewed it and read about plans for Johnston to play in the game. As the JV game went on, the stands began to fill up. Some held signs for Zachary. Fans were chanting his name.

“It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had for a JV game,” said Wobrock.

The players on the floor kept looking over at the bench to see if Johnston was ready. Finally, late in the game, Wobrock walked with Johnston to the scorer’s table. Johnston showed the scorekeeper his jersey – number 15 – checked into the game, and ran onto the court.

“When the crowd erupted, it gave me chills,” Wobrock said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. All the kids stood up. Everyone stood up. We weren’t even focused on basketball that night. We were focused on Zach.”

As players from both teams circled around Johnston, he got his chance. Finally, on a pass from Clinton’s Derek Tomalak, Johnston took aim at the basket and sank the jump shot.

The crowd erupted. Several people were in tears.

“I can’t remember being that emotional before the varsity game even started,” Onsted varsity basketball coach Brad Maska said. “I’m proud of my JV coaches for how they handled that night.”

Dutton said he was more than happy to help the Onsted basketball team make the moment happen. He was also glad his children got to watch from the stands.

“It was a special thing to be a part of and witness,” he said. “I am happy Travis asked our team to be involved. It helps bring into the limelight that basketball is just a game and that there are greater things in life than wins and losses. It's about building young men to be caring, thoughtful individuals when they are done playing.”

Wobrock, who is the graduation coach at Onsted High School, said his eight-player squad learned a lot of valuable lessons this season with Johnston as their manager. The players - Daniel Harrah, Jordan Santimore, Brody Giroux, Zack Gillean, Bradlee Vanbrunt, Harrison Moore, Matt Marsh and Brandon Corder – were just as emotional as everyone else in the Onsted gym.

“They’ve been amazing through this whole thing,” Wobrock said. “I’m very proud of them.

“It’s amazing how they have taken him under their wing. They give him fist-bumps in the hall and hugs. They eat lunch with him. I think that’s kind of how it started. They saw him eating alone at lunch and the whole table invited him to their table. The relationship has just taken off. He’s one of the guys.”

LaFerney is a California native and lived in the San Diego area until two years ago when her family moved to Michigan, where her husband was originally from and has family. They bought a home in the Onsted Community Schools district. It’s been a perfect fit for her son, who is a freshman at the school.

Being part of the school, part of the team, has been extremely important to Zachary, she said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s very aware of his situation and surroundings. He knows how people are treating him.

“This is about way more than just basketball,” she added. “It’s about inclusion. Coach Wobrock was amazing about making sure Zachary was included in every way possible. The players on that team really care for Zachary.”

Wobrock recognized the impact basketball has had on Johnston – and the other players on the Wildcats team.

“Just because someone is different,” Wobrock said, “it doesn’t mean they don’t have the same goals, the same dreams, as everyone else.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onsted junior varsity teammates celebrate with Zachary Johnston after his basket against Clinton. (Middle) Johnston squares up and takes aim. (Below) Johnston shares a celebratory moment with coach Travis Wobrock. (Photos courtesy of Eric Tjolsen.)

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.)