League Change Suiting Mesick Well as Talented Bulldogs Pursue Repeat

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

January 21, 2022

Who let the dogs out?

Who, who — let the Mesick Bulldogs — in?

That’s the question West Michigan D League rivals may be asking.

And, it’s more like a what … with the answer being the league’s expansion to 10 schools for the 2018-19 school year that paved the way for Mesick to enter.

Until that point, the Bulldogs were part of the Northwest Conference. They won only three games total over their last two years in the Northwest while competing against schools like Buckley – which reached the Class D championship game in both of the Bulldogs’ final two years in their old league. Mesick’s girls – 8-2 this winter – were struggling too.

The last two years in the Northwest also were the first two for the boys varsity under head coach Kyle Duby. The move may have helped turn things around for Mesick, along with extensive offseason work and youth development efforts.

The Mesick boys won five games in 2018-19 and six in 2019-2020 before going 11-6 last year and capturing a share of the West Michigan D championship – Mesick’s first piece of a conference basketball championship in 39 years.

Today, they Bulldogs are 7-0 and in the driver’s seat in league play. They have wins over league opponents Big Rapids Crossroads, Bear Lake, Brethren, Mason County Eastern, Walkerville and Baldwin.

The boys, with an outright conference championship on their minds, will finish their first run through the league schedule against Marion next week. Marion came into the West Michigan D at the same time as Mesick.

“This year we knew we wanted to win the conference outright,” said Duby, who also serves as the school’s athletic director. “That’s one of our goals. 

“We also have a goal to make a run – whatever that may look like – in the postseason,” he continued.  “First and foremost, we wanted to win our conference outright.”

Mesick boys basketballKeeping their starters healthy and able to play has been a challenge for the Bulldogs, but scoring has not. Injuries and COVID-related absences have caused Duby to alter his starting lineup regularly as the Bulldogs are hitting 70 points-plus per game.

Senior forward Conner Simmer is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18. Another senior, Logan Wienclaw, chips in 12 from his center spot, while juniors Carter Simmer and Caleb Linna contribute 11.5 and 10 points per game, respectively.

“We have several kids who have worked hard for several years,” Duby said. “There is no one person you can shut down and expect to beat us.”

The Bulldogs, who also get almost eight points per game from junior Ashton Simerson, rack up 17 assists per games. Three-point shooting is also a strength. The Bulldogs got into the Michigan record books with 15 3-pointers on 32 tries in Thursday’s 73-45 win over Baldwin.

The Baldwin win helped erase memories of a big loss last year. Things are different as Mesick in nearing the halfway point of this home-and-home conference schedule. The Bulldogs have played the majority of their league games on the road and will be playing host a lot while enjoying their ride in the driver’s seat.

“Baldwin was the team that stopped us from an outright conference championship last year,” Duby said. “Winning in Baldwin and getting through the mental hurdle is exciting for us.”

High scoring has been a major contributor to the Bulldogs’ success to date, along with many of the current varsity having played together since middle school – the same time Duby took over the program. 

Film study is another significant factor. Based on the review, the Bulldogs prepare to use a variety of presses and half court defenses from their repertoire.

“We have eight different defenses we can play depending on what the film said,” Duby pointed out.  “We do what the films tells us.”

“Luckily I have had these boys since they were in sixth and seventh grade, and we played a lot of summer basketball,” he continued. “They are a high-IQ group.”

The road to success started years ago with a meeting Duby held with the parents of today’s Bulldogs.

“I knew the task of getting to this point was going to be a long one,” Duby said. “Right away, we started having them travel.

“We’d take a junior high, JV and varsity team and go down to Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Lansing … Flint and be downstate in summer about four weekends,” he continued. “We would take our whole program together and caravan and play basketball.”

Duby credits the fast start to his coaching staff, which includes Joe Lewis, Derek Linna, Nathan Hall and Jason McCree.

“My JV coach, Joe Lewis, has been with me since day one,” Duby said. “Over the years we’ve absorbed some dads to the staff.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Mesick boys basketball coach Kyle Duby addresses his team during a game this season. (Middle) Logan Wienclaw (20) goes up for a jump ball. (Photos by Daniel Cochrane.)

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.)