Johnston Retires as Winningest Coach, Much More to Beaverton Dream He Built

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 15, 2024

Before Roy Johnston left the court that bears his name for the final time as Beaverton head boys basketball coach on Feb. 23, 1,500-plus fans, family and current and former players had one more chant.

Bay & ThumbIt wasn’t the name of the coach they all adored after he wrapped up the winningest career in MHSAA basketball history. It wasn’t even the school song, or a slogan.

With Johnston pumping a raised fist, the community chanted “Judy” to honor his wife, who could not be at the game or celebration as she was battling cancer.

It was a fitting tribute to the woman behind the coach who became more than the face of the community, and one last opportunity for those fans to say thank you to her for her own efforts and sacrifices in helping the Beaverton become something pulled straight from the movie screen – the small-town sports tale complete with the iconic coach in the lead role and generations of locals living their dedication by filling the stands for every game.

Judy Johnston passed away this past Saturday, a little more than two weeks after the ceremony that honored her husband. She was 81.

All interviews for this story were completed prior to her passing, but a common theme when talking about Johnston’s 50-year career and importance to Beaverton was that the entire family, specifically Judy, had played a big role.

“His family has put forth an incredible amount of effort into our community,” said former player Brent Mishler. “In basketball and in general.”

Family is at the center of Johnston and Beaverton’s immense success over his 50 years. Not only has he coached multiple generations of several Beaverton families – including three generations of Mishlers – but he’s coached his own children, and grandchildren. 

Small town programs often rely on players who have grown up around them and together, and Beaverton has that in spades.

“It was a dream,” former player and Johnston’s co-coach, Shad Woodruff, said of having his son Layk play for Johnston. “I got to play for Roy and be part of all that Beaverton basketball is – it’s not just a sport around here. We have video of (Layk) dribbling a basketball in the gym literally before he could walk. He’s been the little guy that always looked up to (Roy’s grandsons) Spencer Johnston and Carter Johnston, so just to be a part of Beaverton basketball is special.

This season’s team stands at the entrance to town with signs announcing the program and coach’s successes. “It’s like when your kid gets there, you’re giving your kid to the community for a while and saying, ‘Here you go.’ It’s amazing to watch your son out there, especially in a community like ours. Roy has created this thing with Beaverton basketball where every Friday night, it’s like church. Everybody’s there.”

The numbers behind Johnston’s career, which started in 1966 in Yale, are remarkable. He holds the MHSAA record for wins by a boys basketball coach at 833, the vast majority coming at Beaverton, the program he took over in 1974.

The Beavers won 21 conference titles, 17 District titles and five Regional titles during Johnston’s 50 years, adding a run to the MHSAA Semifinals in 1984.

Just six of Johnston’s seasons ended in records below .500, and in a fitting tribute to their coach, this year’s Beavers scratched and clawed their way to a five-game win streak at the end of the season to ensure his last wouldn’t be No. 7, finishing the year 12-12 with a loss to Beal City in the District Final.

Included in that streak was a 54-45 victory over rival Gladwin on the night Johnston was honored. The Beavers trailed by as many as nine during the second half before rallying to win, led by a 26-rebound performance from 6-foot, 1½-inch senior Reese Longstreth, who Woodruff called the epitome of a Beaverton basketball player.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around Roy for 40 years, and I’ve seen a lot of great wins, especially in that gym,” Woodruff said. “I can’t put anything above that one.”

Layk Woodruff made the final basket in the game, which will forever be the final basket made in Roy F. Johnston Gymnasium during the Johnston era.

“It was super emotional, I’d say, for a bunch of reasons,” Layk Woodruff said of the game. “We felt like it was our responsibility, we had to that game for Roy. It was a rivalry game, last home game of the year – there were a lot of emotions when that game ended. I didn’t even think about (hitting the final shot) until a couple days later. Now that I get to think about it, it’s pretty cool to say that was me. I’ll always remember that.”

One celebration led to another, as Johnston’s retirement ceremony followed the game. A tribute video created by Beaverton graduate Jason Brown, who owns a digital media company, and narrated by longtime Beaverton public address announcer Scott Govitz was played. Govitz admitted to getting choked up at times while recording the video.

“There were a couple times where I did more than one take,” he said.

Govitz was at the center of a massive effort to create the ceremony, with support from athletic director Will Gaudard, school staff and members of the community, including multiple businesses and organizations. Govitz had arranged for special lighting and video screens for the presentation. Special tickets were printed for the night – which also happened to be Beaverton’s Hall of Fame night. Following the video, a spotlight was shone on center court, where a single chair sat, one of Johnston’s vintage red blazers draped over its back.

The more than 100 former players who had come to celebrate their coach each had a glow stick they cracked on, and walked through the darkness to surround the chair. 

Then Johnston walked the red carpet – much like his starters have for years when being introduced prior to games – and addressed the crowd.

He didn’t speak for long, but as Johnston so often does, he hit all the right notes, mixing gratitude with humor.

“Gladwin County is a great place to raise a good family,” Johnston said after thanking the traveling contingent from Gladwin.

“I want to thank everyone for a great run. Fifty years. A great run.”

For outsiders, it was a chance to see the softer side of Johnston rather than the man intensely patrolling the sidelines during games. It was a glimpse at the man that handed out suckers before games to every kid in attendance. 

ohnston takes a photo with three generations of Mishlers – Cameron, Brent and Steve. “He belonged on an episode of ‘Grumpy Old Men,’ and he still could play the role,” Govitz said with a laugh. “He would always say, ‘Don’t listen to the way I say it, listen to what I say.’ He just wants you to do things correctly. His players, maybe they didn’t adore it at the time, but they adore it now. Being a part of that program taught them more than basketball skills. … What will happen, once they leave, they find that great respect for it. And, he does things quietly that no one ever knows or sees – helping someone in need, especially the ones in college, checking up on them or sending them some money. That helps build a program and build relationships. He said in his last speech that it’s about getting along with others. If you can’t get along well with others, you can’t get along. That’s what it’s about.”

Mishler echoed that sentiment, and some of the memories that stick out most to the 2002 graduate were when Johnston got after him in his own special way.

“Playing for him was a privilege,” said Mishler, whose father Steve played for Johnston in the ’70s, and his son Cameron played through 2021. “The life lessons he taught set you up for success in life for the future. ‘You need to hear what I’m saying, not the method I’m saying it.’ That’s so true. Being honest and having expectations, and expecting people to hit those expectations, is not a bad thing.”

After Johnston was done speaking, he knelt down and kissed the floor to say goodbye to the job he’s done for most of his life, and in a way, thank you, to the community he helped create and that he’ll now need more than ever.

“Roy’s good at making you feel like he’s not big on that stuff (being recognized), and he isn’t, but he definitely does appreciate it,” Shad Woodruff said. “He understands how important he is to the community, and that he’s done something really special. He understands what he’s done is a pretty big feat, but he doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t brag about it.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Beaverton boys basketball coach Roy Johnston kisses the court that bears his name during a celebration of his retirement Feb. 23. (Middle) This season’s team stands at the entrance to town with signs announcing the program and coach’s successes. (Below) Johnston takes a photo with three generations of Mishlers – Cameron, Brent and Steve. (Top photo by Stephanie Johnston.)

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.)