Menominee Extends Downstate Stay to Championship Day with 'Powerful' Performance

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 24, 2022

EAST LANSING - The chants from the Menominee student section said it all during the final minute of the first Division 3 Boys Basketball Semifinal on Thursday at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center. 

“U.P. power! U.P power!” 

Indeed, Menominee represented the Upper Peninsula loud and proud, taking a big early lead, withstanding a furious second-half rally, and then pulling away late for a 74-56 win over Ecorse.

Menominee advanced to its first MHSAA Finals championship game since it won the Class B crown in 1967. 

“It’s kind of surreal,” said Menominee senior Brady Schultz. 

It was a balanced effort for Menominee, led by Schultz, who had a game-high 26 points to go along with seven rebounds. 

Senior Cooper Conway had 18 points and nine rebounds, senior Aidan Bellisle had 12 points and 10 assists and senior Brady Badker added 10 points for Menominee (23-3). 

The Maroons showcased their ability to handle what a quick Ecorse team threw at them, displaying their length, ball movement and athleticism. 

“That’s been something that’s been our trait and our characteristic all season long,” Menominee coach Sam Larson said. “We are fairly long, and we think we are pretty athletic. I know there is probably a difference in athleticism most times when the U.P. teams come down to play Lower Peninsula teams. But we think we match up athletically with most teams in the state in our division.”

Schultz said a game earlier in the season against Milwaukee Bradley Tech helped his team simulate the quickness and defensive pressure Ecorse offered. 

“When we handle the pressure well, we get open shots and dump offs,” Schultz said. “Bradley Tech pretty much helped us with that game.”

Ecorse scored the first five points over the opening 1:34 of the game. But Menominee responded with a 12-0 run over the next three minutes and never looked back. 

The Maroons held a 19-13 lead going into the second quarter, and with a 7-2 run took a 36-18 lead with 1:56 remaining until halftime.

Menominee basketballMenominee ended up taking a 41-23 lead into the locker room at the break, shooting 51.7 percent from the field overall (15 of 29) and making 7 of 14 shots from 3-point range. 

The Maroons also forced 12 turnovers during the first half.

Ecorse came out with more urgency in the second half, employing full-court pressure, hitting some shots and getting back in the game. 

The Raiders scored almost as many points during the third quarter (22) as they did in the first half, cutting the Menominee lead to 53-45 entering the fourth quarter. 

The lead continued to shrink, with Ecorse cutting the Menominee advantage to 57-52 with 6:11 remaining after a deep 3-pointer by junior Kenneth Morrast Jr. 

“I thought we got tentative offensively,” Larson said. “We wanted to just pass it around and run the clock, and that’s not where we are at our best. If we get an open shot, we have to go after it.”

However, Menominee held firm for the next few minutes, keeping a 63-56 lead with 2:38 remaining before putting the game away. 

Effectively breaking the Ecorse press, getting stops and making free throws, Menominee went on an 11-0 run, punctuated by a Schultz dunk, to take a 74-56 lead with just over 57 seconds remaining. 

Ecorse (9-13), which had to forfeit 10 games during the regular season, was playing in its first Semifinal since 1980. 

Morrast scored 20 points, and sophomore Dennell Kemp added 15 for the Raiders. 

Ecorse coach Gerrod Abram said he was proud of how his team rallied from a big deficit in the first half, but his squad simply ran out of gas.

“We dug a hole for ourselves that we just couldn’t get out of,” Abram said. “But I’m just so very proud of my team and these young men here.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Menominee’s Brady Schultz (24) gets his hands on a loose ball during Thursday’s Division 3 Semifinal win over Ecorse. (Middle) The Maroons celebrate advancing to the championship game. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)