Midland Boys Hoops Earns 'Football' Buzz

March 21, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

MIDLAND — Payton DeWildt is accustomed to pep rallies at school.

Just not during basketball season.

"It's just not something they do," the Midland High senior said. "Only when we play Dow, our crosstown rival."

And only in football.

"Midland High is known as a football school," said DeWildt, the quarterback on the Chemics' football team last fall. "When I was a freshman (on the varsity basketball team), the seniors were good. I said we've got to keep this winning tradition going and make Midland a basketball school, also."

In four seasons of basketball, DeWildt has known nothing but success, a concept that was foreign to a generation of hoopsters at Midland. The Chemics have won District championships in three of his four years after going 13 years without a title.

What sets this year's team apart is that it also added a Regional championship to the mix, the first for the Chemics since winning back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979.

Suddenly, basketball is a big deal at Midland, worthy of the treatment usually reserved for the football team. A pep assembly will be part of the pregame hype at Midland before the Chemics face Macomb Dakota at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Grand Blanc in the MHSAA Class A Quarterfinals.

"There's quite a buzz," said 14-year coach Eric Krause. "It was really nice to see the people very excited. In the past football has been there, but it was really cool to see guys getting recognized. You like to see the efforts being rewarded, so it's really exciting. It's nice to see some of the older members of the community who will come to games, no matter what your record, and to see the excitement in their faces."

For the players, there is a sense that they are making history.

"Definitely," DeWildt said. "We just won the first Regional Final since 1979. We're trying to make it one more game. We just want to prove we're one of the best teams to come through Midland High, so we want to make it as far as we can."

If Midland can topple second-ranked Dakota (25-0), the Chemics (17-6) will reach the MHSAA Semifinals for only the second time in school history. The Chemics reached the semis in 1970, losing 82-71 to Detroit Pershing. Midland made the Quarterfinals two more times in the '70s, losing 72-53 to Flint Northern in 1978 and 66-58 to Saginaw in 1979.

A major reason why the Chemics haven't lasted to the final week of the postseason is geography. They not only play in one of the toughest leagues in the state, but they have had to go head-to-head with Saginaw Valley League rivals in the tournament. In the last three seasons, the Chemics lost in the 2013 Regional Semifinals to a Saginaw team that made the MHSAA Semifinals, in the 2014 District Semifinals to a Mount Pleasant team that made the MHSAA Semifinals, and in the 2015 Regional championship game to a Saginaw Arthur Hill team that was the MHSAA runner-up.

It's tough to go deep into the tournament when so many nearby schools are capable of going all the way to the Breslin Center. The Valley has had 12 schools combine to make the MHSAA Class A Quarterfinals 137 times. Five Valley schools — all from Flint or Saginaw — have combined for 22 MHSAA Class A championships.

"You had to play in a league that is arguably the best public school league, some years, in the nation in the 1990s before I got into it," Krause said. "I don't mean to take anything away from what we're doing, but Flint isn't Flint anymore — not the way it was. Dave MacDonald is a good friend of mine who coached Midland Dow for over 30 years. He'd be over .500 most years, some years with 12 or 13 wins. The amount of pros he coached against, people just don't understand.

"I believe the Valley is one of the best leagues in the state. The difference is it used to be one of the best leagues in the nation."

To reach the Quarterfinals, Midland had to take down one of the two elite Saginaw programs for the first time in the postseason since beating Arthur Hill in the 1971 District Final.

The Chemics split their regular-season series with Saginaw, each winning on its own home court, so what happened when the teams met for the Regional championship shouldn't come as a huge surprise. On a night in which the tension was felt on the court and in the stands, Midland knocked off Saginaw, 60-56.

Midland held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter before Saginaw rallied to grab a four-point lead. Midland finished the game on a 12-4 run.

"It was the best game I've ever played in my life, the most exciting game," said senior Matt Jarema, another four-year varsity player. "I can probably say that most of my teammates all said it was the most exciting game they ever played; it was something. We knew we were bigger and stronger than them. We knew we could beat them. That's what we came in and did."

The impetus for this year's Regional championship run was a tough loss to Arthur Hill in last year's Regional Final. Midland was within four points early in the fourth quarter before current University of Texas freshman Eric Davis scored 12 points in the final period to lead the Lumberjacks to a 66-52 victory. Arthur Hill went on to play for the Class A title.

"Ever since last year after that Regional Final loss against Arthur Hill, we knew this year we would win the Regionals and we'd be in the Quarterfinals," Jarema said. "Playing against Saginaw and Arthur Hill, they prepare us for pressure like no other. They get up on you. We believe their pressure is some of the best pressure we'll have to face each year to prepare us for this moment now."

Midland has won four postseason games but, much like its regular season, nothing has been easy. Three of the four games have been decided by four points or fewer.

The Chemics opened the postseason by beating Mount Pleasant, 49-48, taking the lead for good on Martin Money's layup with 34 seconds left. After a 58-37 rout of Saginaw Heritage in the District Final, the Chemics overcame adversity to edge Traverse City West, 61-59, in the Regional Semifinal at Gaylord. Center Kyle Johnson was nearly late for that game because of a flat tire, Krause was dealing with a flooded basement before leaving for the game, and West's cheering section dwarfed Midland's because of the travel. Then came the four-point victory over long-time nemesis Saginaw in the Regional Final.

And now a team that has lost six games is within one victory of playing in the Breslin Center.

"We're a very odd team," Krause said. "We know we can play with very elite teams, but we honestly can lose to a lot of teams that are levels below that elite level. We can lose to a lot of teams. Usually when you have teams go this far, that's not the case. We have a strange quality where if things aren't going well, we have to be ready for a close game. Sometimes that makes you not panic when the game is close, because you figure you're going to win the game. We're kind of an interesting team that way."

DeWildt returned from a shoulder injury for the postseason opener to lead Midland's tournament run. He is the only Chemics player averaging in double figures during the tournament, scoring 16.8 points per game.

The scoring is balanced after that, with Virgil Walker averaging 8.8 points, Garrett Willis and Johnson 7.3 apiece, and Jarema 7.0.

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: Midland’s Virgil Walker drives past a Saginaw Arthur Hill player this season. (Middle) Payton DeWildt lines up for a free throw. (Photos courtesy of the Midland athletic department.)

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.)