Lessons From Banner Run Still Ring True

February 20, 2019

By Tim Miller
Mio teacher, former coach and graduate

If you were to travel to northern Michigan to canoe or fish the famous AuSable River, you might find yourself in a small town named Mio.

With one stoplight and a host of small businesses that line Main Street, Mio is well known for its access to the AuSable River and its high school sports team. And like so many small towns across America, the school is the main focal point of the community. Mio is the home of the Mio Thunderbolts, which is the mascot of the only school in town.

On Saturday, December 29, head boys basketball coach Ty McGregor and fans from around the state gathered in the Mio gymnasium to welcome back two former boys basketball teams. The two teams being honored that night were the 1989 state championship team who went undefeated and the 1978 boys basketball team who made it to the Semifinals. 

As we stood there watching the former players of those teams, and coach of the 1978  team Paul Fox, make their way across the gym floor, we were reminded of the deceased players Cliff Frazho, Rob Gusler, Dave Narloch and John Byelich – the coach of the 1989 state championship team – that were no longer with us. All of them leaving us way too soon and a reminder of how fragile life can be.

The ’89 team would be a story in itself. That team was the most dominating team in Mio’s history.

After recognizing these two teams and visiting with many of them in the hallway, I stepped into the gym and began looking at the banners hanging from our walls. I found the state championship banner that the ’89 team won and the ’78 banner, and I began remembering those teams and how they brought so much excitement, happiness and pride to our small community.

Like so many schools throughout the state, the banners are a reminder of a team’s success and the year that it was accomplished. It’s a topic of conversation as former players share their memories with others about the year they earned their spot in history.

However, hanging on the south wall of the gym, all by itself, is a banner that only hangs from the walls of the Mio AuSable gym. No other school in Michigan has one like it. It has a weathered look, and the color has slightly faded over time. It’s been the conversation piece at deer camp, restaurants, and any other social gathering concerning Mio sports history. Basketball players throughout the state have dreamed of taking it away, but none have succeeded. It’s been hanging there for close to 40 years.

It reads:  

Jay Smith
Mio AuSable School
MHSAA Career Scoring Champion
1976 – 1979
2,841 points

That banner represents something far greater than one person’s accomplishments. The story of how it got there and why it hasn’t left is a lesson that every sports team should learn – such a rare story in teamwork, coaching, parental support, the will to win, and the coach who masterfully engineered the plan.

The night Jay Smith broke the state scoring record, the Mio gym was packed with spectators from all parts of Michigan. The game was stopped and people rose to their feet to acknowledge the birthplace of the new record holder. After clapping and cheering for what seemed like an eternity, the ceremony was over and the game went on.

Although I wasn’t on the team, like so many people from Mio, I followed that group of basketball players from gym to gym throughout northern Michigan.

I had a front row seat in the student section where every kid who wasn’t on the team spent their time cheering for the Thunderbolts.

We were led by our conductor, “Wild Bill,” who had a knack for writing the lyrics to many of the cheers the student body used to disrupt our opponents or protest a referee’s call.

The student section was also home to the best pep band around. During home games they played a variety of tunes that kept the gym rocking. They were an integral part of the excitement that took place in that gym, game after game.

I also ate lunch and hung out at school with some of those guys. I got to hear the details of the game, the strategy, the battles between players, and the game plan for the next rival’s team.

I remember the school spirit, the pep assemblies, and the countless hours our faithful cheerleaders put into making and decorating our halls and gym with posters.

It was like a fourth of July parade that happened every Tuesday and Friday night. The bleachers were filled with people anxiously awaiting tip off.

Showing up late meant you were stuck trying to get a glimpse of the game from the hallway.

So here’s what I saw. Jay Smith was a tall, skinny kid who could shoot the ball with such accuracy that it must have been miserable for opposing coaches and players. Once it was in his hands, they had two options: watch him score or foul him and hope that he missed the free throws.

If you fouled him, you gambled wrong. He stood there and calmly shot the ball through the hoop with the sound of the net swishing as opposing players and coaches watched helplessly.

If you chose to let him shoot, you lost that bet too.

He shot often and rarely did he miss. It was no secret to our opponents or Jay’s teammates who would be doing the bulk of the shooting in Mio.

The game plan was simple: get the ball to Jay and watch him score. The Thunderbolts were coached by Paul Fox, a teacher at the school. He was demanding and intense as a coach, and his players played hard and respected him both in school and on the court. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to coach a couple of high school teams that I realized and recognized what an incredible job he did.

I also realized what an outstanding group of players he was blessed to coach.

He was a step ahead of everybody.

Like Bill Belichick the famous coach of the New England Patriots, Paul Fox understood how to build a team around one person. He convinced everyone on the team that the way to the promised land was through the scoring of Jay. However, the type of players who buy into such a plan have to be special. And they were. Jay was blessed his first two years on varsity. He was surrounded by a very talented group of ball players who allowed him to be successful.

His last two teams weren’t as talented, but just as special.

Most of those guys were classmates of mine, so here’s what I can tell you.

Not one time during that stretch did I ever hear one of them complain about playing time. There was no pouting on the bench or kicking it because you were taken out.

No one complained the next day about their stats. They were happy to win, and if that meant Jay shooting most of the time, that was okay with them. After the game, no one ran to the scorer’s table to check their stats. Or went off in the corner of the locker room to act like a preschooler in timeout. Their parents didn’t march over to the coach and demand answers on why their son wasn’t playing or shooting more. Players didn’t quit the team because their individual needs weren’t being met. There were expectations from the coach, the parents, and everyone else involved. After each home game, the whole community gathered at the local bar/ bowling alley. Players, parents, and fans were happy their team had won and celebrated together in the victory. It was a simple blueprint that every sports team should follow.

Forget about your own personal gratification and do what’s best for the team.

It’s a lost concept these days. And the question many of us in Mio talk about from time to time is will the record ever be broken?

There’s more than one factor to consider when discussing the topic.

Jay set that record long before the 3-point shot was implemented.

Can a coach like Paul Fox assemble a group of players who would put their ego aside and desire winning more than their own personal satisfaction?

Can you find a humble kid like Jay who would crush the dreams of opposing teams with his shooting ability?

Can you find a group of parents out there willing to watch a kid like him put on a show, game after game, and not be offended?

Can you find a student body like the one we had to fill the student section with loud, rowdy fans?

The scoring banner represents the scoring accomplishments of Jay. And to his credit, I never once heard him brag about his success on the court.

He simply said, “We won.”

But that banner represents more than points. It’s an amazing story of what happens when a group of people come together with a common cause – the will to win.

What we saw during that time was special!

The state scoring record was set by Jay and a large list of supporting teammates who helped him.

He was fortunate to have a coach who understood how to manage and convince a group of players to buy into his system.

A group of parents who understood what was going on and supported it.

A student body section that rattled the best players from the other teams game after game.

A dedicated group of cheerleaders who spent countless hours making posters to decorate our school with pride.

A pep band that brought their best sound, game after game.

A teaching staff who understood how a bunch of kids wanted to get ready for the next big game, and gave us their blessing.

It was the culture of our school and community. Get ready for the game.

The anticipation, those long lines waiting outside in the cold, those packed gyms, that noise.

It was all part of it.

Perhaps somewhere in Michigan a group of coaches, players, parents, teachers, and fans could copy the formula from the ’70s that brought our team, school, and town so much success.

If a coach can find a group of players that only care about one thing, and that’s winning, it can be done. Doing that will require a group of people who think they understand the concept to execute it. As a society we see it at every level of sports: the “I” syndrome, the selfishness, the lack of respect for coaches and teammates. It’s the fiber that destroys any chance for success.

My guess is the banner will hang in our gym until someone in the school decides to replace the old one. Perhaps Jay’s children or grandchildren will want the old one to add to their family memorabilia. And after the new one is hung up and another forty years have passed, someone else will write a story about the banner that continues to hang in Mio’s gym.

NOTE: Jay Smith went on to play at Bowling Green and Saginaw Valley State University, and coach at Kent State, University of Michigan, Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Detroit Mercy, and currently as head coach at Kalamazoo College. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer and faces another round of radiation treatments after undergoing surgery in September. Click for a recent report by WOOD TV.

PHOTOS: (Top) The banner celebrating Jay Smith’s state high school career scoring record continues to greet fans at Mio High School’s gym. (Middle) Smith was a standout for the Thunderbolts through his graduation in 1979. (Below) Smith scored 2,841 points over four seasons, averaging 29 points per game.

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.)