Lincoln Phenom Off to Dazzling Debut

December 27, 2018

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

When Ypsilanti Lincoln’s boys basketball team faces off against another MHSAA title contender River Rouge on Saturday, it won’t be just another game.  

And, that’s just how Lincoln freshman Emoni Bates likes it.

“He loves the lights, the crowd and playing the game of basketball,” said his father, E.J. Bates. “That’s part of the game. He loves the big stage when the lights are bright. He embraces that.’

So far in his young basketball career, there have been plenty of lights for the 14-year-old Bates. He’s touted by some as the No. 1 ninth-grade basketball player in the nation.

That’s a hefty title to carry, but one Bates is carrying well. While just a month into his high school career, the 6-foot-8 Bates is as calm and collected doing media interviews as he is shooting jump shots and throwing down thunderous dunks.

Lincoln has started the season 5-0, and Bates is the leader of a team that would be good without him but is a threat to win the Southeastern Conference White championship and make a long tournament run with him.

Every gym he’s played at so far this season has welcomed big crowds. Bates is attracting a lot of that attention.

Adrian High School had what Maples athletic director John Roberts called one of the biggest regular-season crowds he’s seen in several years when Lincoln played there on a Friday night earlier this month. Bates was clearly a big reason why. Some Maples students found their way over to Bates before the game to ask for an autograph.

Bates was impressive even in warm-ups, starting off with a big-time whirlwind dunk that got plenty of attention from the crowd.

Once the game started, Bates was equally as impressive. With every touch of the ball, the crowd expected big things from him – and he didn’t disappoint.

“Some of the people in the crowd have never seen me play, so I’m trying to put on a show for those who came out to see me,” the freshman said after the game.

Bates is averaging 28.6 points per game through five contests. He scored 32 in his varsity debut against Ann Arbor Huron in November. He scored 28 against Saline, 23 against Adrian, 32 against Pinckney and 28 against Temperance-Bedford. Lincoln’s only home game so far was the opener.

Bates said the crowd doesn’t faze him, mainly because he’s used to garnering the attention after playing before big crowds during AAU events.

“I just go out there and have fun,” he said. “I’m used to it.”

Bates has been working on his game for years. He emphasizes speed training and just getting better at all aspects of the game. On the floor, he is intent on keeping his teammates involved in the game as well.

“We are building trust,” he said of his teammates.

Lincoln is actually a veteran team. Seniors Tahj Chatman and Amari Frye were first-team all-SEC White selections last year, and senior Jalen Fisher was an honorable mention choice. Chatman has had a great start to this season, averaging in double figures, as is Fisher. The Railsplitters have 10 seniors, three juniors, a sophomore and Bates.

Lincoln head coach Jesse Davis is in his fourth season coaching Lincoln after more than 15 as an assistant at various levels. He coached at Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsilanti before joining Josh Tropea at Milan. Davis was an assistant at Milan when the Big Reds won the 2014 Class B championship while featuring Division I college talents in Latin Davis and Nick Perkins.

The connection between the player Bates and Davis, and to Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan, runs deep.

E.J. Bates played his first three years of high school basketball at Milan, reaching the 1,000-point milestone before his junior year was over. He finished his high school basketball career at Ann Arbor Pioneer before playing collegiately in Kentucky and professionally in Europe. He and Davis have a friendship that dates back three decades.

Davis said his job is to keep the younger Bates focused on basketball and not worrying about the hype surrounding him and the team.

“He believes in his ability,” Davis said of Bates.

Tropea will have the challenge of facing off against Bates multiple times over the next couple of years, but he’s excited for the chance.

“It will be great for our league,” said Tropea. “He’s the real deal. He’s an incredible talent.”

Saturday, the Railsplitters take on River Rouge in the Washtenaw County Challenge. The event is an example of a growing trend in high school basketball in Michigan – to bring together multiple teams at one venue for a full day of basketball.

Ypsilanti Community is host and will take on Detroit Henry Ford in the last game of the day. The event kicks off at noon with Ann Arbor Huron playing Southfield Arts & Technology. Chelsea plays Parma Western in the second game, Lincoln takes on River Rouge in the third and Ann Arbor Pioneer takes on Wayne Memorial in the fourth game of the day.

The event will feature some of the most talented players and teams in the state, but Bates is sure to be in the spotlight – and not just from fans. Both University of Michigan and Michigan State University are showing interest in him, and college coaches from around the country have Bates on their radars. At the Adrian game, MSU assistant Mike Garland sat in the front row.

E.J. Bates said the attention isn’t getting to his son just yet. But he is monitoring it because, he said, “at the end of the day, he’s still a kid.

“We regulate it, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming for him. Everything is fine. If it gets too out of hand, we’ll sever ties with it. If he needs a break, we’re going to give him one.”

E.J. has coached his son in AAU basketball. This prep season, he’s enjoying watching his son develop his game at the high school level in the same area where he grew up playing.

“I love it,” E.J. Bates said. “I always wanted him to be able to stay at home and play basketball. … First of all, like I always tell everybody, if you are that type of talent and you want to leave a legacy behind, you should leave it at home. You shouldn’t go somewhere you’ll never visit after you graduate, and no one knows you. At home, your family and everybody can be proud of you for doing something for your hometown. It’s giving back to where you came from.”

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) Ypsilanti Lincoln’s Emoni Bates brings the ball upcourt during a win over Temperance Bedford this winter. (Middle) Bates after that victory, which was part of his team’s 5-0 start. (Photos by Vanessa Ray.)

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.)