Manton, Buckley Prepped for Final Week

March 17, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – History repeated itself Wednesday night.

Down four midway through the fourth quarter, Manton rallied for an edge-of-your-seat 47-46 win over Boyne City in the MHSAA Class C Regional Final at Houghton Lake.

It was Manton’s first Regional title since 1998, when the Rangers topped Boyne City, also at Houghton Lake.

“It’s interesting how things work out,” said Manton coach Ryan Hiller, who was a star player on that 1998 squad.

The Rangers next will face Negaunee on Tuesday in Petoskey.

Manton is one of two Wexford County teams marching on to the Quarterfinals. Unbeaten Buckley upended Suttons Bay 56-37 for a Class D Regional crown at Traverse City Central.

It was Buckley’s first Regional championship since 2010. The Bears will meet Wyoming Tri-unity Christian on Tuesday in Cadillac.

“Let’s do it,” said Bears coach Blair Moss, who starts five underclassmen. “This is fun. I told the kids, ‘This is something you’ll remember the rest of your lives. Let’s not waste it.’ I’m not worried about next year because you never know what will happen next year. Let’s do it right now.”

While Manton players, coaches and fans were basking in the glow of victory in Houghton Lake, Hiller was relieved to be moving on. The Rangers won despite shooting 26 percent from the field – 23 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. In Monday’s Regional opening win over Maple City Glen Lake, the Rangers were 1-of-11 behind the arc in the first half.

“We just don’t shoot well in that gym,” said Hiller. “We’re a 42 percent 3-point shooting team. We had a stretch of five games this season where we hit over 10 3s (in each game).

“These were the two worst shooting nights we’ve had all year. That was my fear (coming into the Final). If we don’t hit our 3s, it’s a dogfight. And that’s exactly what happened.”

It forced Manton to rely on other parts of its game.

“Free throws and defense won the game for us,” said junior guard Hunter Ruell after the title-clinching victory. “We got some big stops at the end – our coaches had a good gameplan for us – and we hit our free throws. That’s what got us the win.”

The Rangers were 14 of 18 from the charity stripe, 9 of 10 in the fourth quarter. On Monday night, they finished 17 of 19, 9 of 11 over the final eight minutes.

Ruell led the way Wednesday with 13 points, but Jayden Perry, Wyatt Baker and Trever Salani all made key shots down the stretch.

“It’s amazing,” said Ruell. “(A tournament run has) been our dream since day one. Our first goal was to get past McBain (in the District). Since then, we’ve been playing it game by game and it’s been working out.”

“For the players and coaches, who have all worked hard and put the time in, this is rewarding,” added Hiller. “And it’s great for our community. Our community needed something like this. I think our whole town was watching or listening to the game tonight.”

The tournament door swung open for the 20-4 Rangers when they beat unbeaten and top-ranked McBain in the District Final, 54-48. McBain had beaten Manton twice during the regular season, 57-55 and 61-45. The Ramblers also had sent the Rangers to the exits in the last two Districts with down-to-the-wire 46-43 and 49-48 triumphs.

“We’ve been so close,” said Hiller. “We’ve been in so many battles with them.”

This time the Rangers won that battle, and now their journey will take them to Petoskey, where they opened the season with wins over Class A Regional finalist Traverse City West 76-72 and the host Northmen 52-48 in the Petoskey Invitational.

Oh, by the way, the Rangers shot 48 percent beyond the arc in those games.

“Our kids should have confidence playing in that gym,” said Hiller.

There’s actually a Petoskey connection at work for the Rangers this season. Former Northmen standout Trevor Huffman, who led Kent State to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2002 and then played 12 years of professional basketball, is helping out, although now it’s “from afar” since he’s been in the Caribbean a good chunk of the season.

“We have good, hard-working, nice kids,” said Hiller. “He (Huffman) formed a bond with them. He said, ‘Hey, I’d love to help as much as I can.’ He’s been helping all season.”

Huffman started working with the team in practice, but left for the Caribbean around the first of the year, Hiller said. Still, he analyzes film for his friend after each Rangers game.

Hiller loads the film on Hudl, allowing Huffman instant access to it.

“It’s awesome to see the game from his eyes,” said Hiller. “He sees things I don’t.  He’s so competitive, and his reports are so detailed. He tells me, ‘You get that game on right after you win and I’ll watch it.’ He’s enjoying the coaching part of it.”

Huffman is also able to leave individual comments on the videos for players to review.

“He promised the kids if they made it to the Breslin he would fly back for the games,” said Hiller. “He’s sticking with it.”

On his Twitter account Wednesday, Huffman congratulated the Rangers on their Regional triumph.

“Proud of their team and what they have put into playing together, on and off the court,” he wrote. “There is nothing better than winning championships with your best friends. Congrats fellas! Enjoy the moment and back to work.”

It’s also back to work for Buckley.

The 24-0 Bears broke Wednesday’s Regional Final open in the third quarter, outscoring Suttons Bay 20-10 to stretch their lead to 15. It was still a 27-22 game when junior Austin Harris nailed a 3-pointer for Buckley. He was fouled after the shot, giving the Bears the ball back. Harris then hit another triple, and Buckley was on its way.

“This team is one of a kind,” said Harris. “We work really hard. We have depth and we have skill. But the biggest thing we have is heart.”

Buckley reached the Regional Finals a year ago, but turnovers in the final couple minutes proved costly in a loss to Bellaire.

“I thought we had them (Bellaire) on their heels,” said Moss, “and then we threw it away the last three or four possessions. We said then we wanted to get back here because we felt we left something on the court. We didn’t take care of the ball, and when you play like that against a good Bellaire team it comes back to haunt you and it haunted us all summer.”

The Bears vowed to improve in crunch time, but so far they rarely have been tested.

Of the 24 wins, 22 are by double digits. Only Glen Lake (63-60) and Manton (77-73) have put the heat on. Manton hit 13 3-pointers in their late February matchup.

Moss’ message to his team after that game?

“Just a hand up is not good enough,” he said. “You have to get a hand in their face.”

Buckley put added emphasis on defense this season, and the results tell the story. The Bears have held the opposition to under 40 points in 13 games.

Perhaps the best individual defensive effort came Wednesday night when sophomore Ridge Beeman shadowed Suttons Bay’s leading scorer Thomas Hursey, limiting the junior to three points.

“Keep a hand in the chest, stay in front of him and don’t let him shoot,” said Beeman. “That’s what Coach told me to do.”

He then proceeded to carry out the orders.

“Unbelievable,” said Moss, who was still conducting interviews about 30 minutes after the game ended. “I’ve got to go in and shake that kid’s hand. To hold Hursey to three points – and that was on a long desperation shot before half – that was huge. Kudos to him. I told him I don’t care if you don’t score any points at all, you make sure you lock that kid (Hursey) down because he has range, he can score from anywhere.”

Denver Cade hit his average, scoring 21 points for the Bears. Harris added 15, Beeman eight and Joey Weber seven.

“It was a good team win,” said Beeman. “It was a low scoring game for us, but we grinded it out.”

And it kept Buckley’s ultimate goal – a trip to Michigan State’s Breslin Center – in play.

“Our first goal was to win the conference championship, and we accomplished that,” said Cade. “Then it was the District championship, and we accomplished that. The Regional? We just accomplished that. Now our goal is to get to the Breslin.”

The run has also helped Moss get through a difficult time. His mother passed away earlier this month.

“I was very close with my mother,” he said. “That’s been on my mind. I’ve got a heavy heart.”

March, in Michigan basketball circles, is known as a memory-maker month, and Moss is determined to get the best efforts out of his players.

His message?

“Play hard, give me everything,” he said. “Don’t leave anything on the floor because if you do you’ll regret it forever – forever.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Manton’s Trevor Salani works to get around a defender. (Middle top) Buckley celebrates Wednesday’s Regional Final win. (Middle below) Manton’s Wyatt Baker and Hunter Ruell lock down a Boyne City player working toward the basket. (Below) A Buckley player battles for a rebound against Suttons Bay. (Manton photos by Jeannie Christensen; Buckley photos courtesy of Buckley High School.) 

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.)