Neitzel Finds Way Back to High School Hoops

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

July 31, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS – Drew Neitzel is a self-proclaimed basketball junkie.

So when the opportunity arose to reconnect with the high school basketball scene, the former Mr. Basketball and Michigan State standout didn’t think twice.

Neitzel, 35, has spent the past five years as a high school basketball radio analyst alongside longtime broadcaster Bret Bakita.

“It was a natural fit for me coming back to Grand Rapids, and I’ve known Bret since he was broadcasting my games at Wyoming Park,” Neitzel said. “He was looking for a partner and reached out to me. 

“I didn’t have the time or desire to maybe get involved with coaching locally, so the high school broadcasting was the perfect fit to keep me around the game and feed my appetite for the game. Friday night hoops is one of the best atmospheres with the student sections and great crowds, and there’s a great following in West Michigan. It’s great to be a part of that high school action again.”

Bakita has been a staple in the West Michigan sports scene and has been a mentor to Neitzel.

“Bret is a true professional and a great guy to work with and learn from,” Neitzel said. “It’s been a great fit and a great team, and hopefully we have a season this winter.”

Neitzel and Bakita were broadcasting a boys District Semifinal in Holland the night before the Covid-19 pandemic started affecting the landscape of sports.

NCAA conference tournaments were canceled, and soon after March Madness and the remainder of the high school winter and spring seasons as well.

Netizel currently lives in Grand Rapids with wife, Kristi, and their son, Drake, who turns 1 in August.

The recent pandemic has changed the lives of many around the world, but Neitzel has tried to take everything in stride.

“It’s certainly been different, and my wife and I are both working from home, which has been good since we have a 1-year-old,”  said Neitzel, who works as a financial advisor in Grand Rapids. 

“We try to see the positives with everything going on and the craziness in the world, and working from home allows us to spend extra time with our little guy.

“It presents its own challenges, but overall we’re doing well and we’re trying to be smart and responsible by social distancing and staying outside. Not putting ourselves in harm’s way if we don’t have to.”

The pandemic and enforced precautions has put a damper on summer activities, which included Neitzel’s annual basketball camp.

The popular Drew Neitzel Basketball Camp has been running for more than a decade, but likely will be halted due to the pandemic.

“This would’ve been our 12th year, and it has been very successful and continued to grow,” Neitzel said. “It’s the one week in the year that I get to get back in the gym with the kids and my dad and 15 of my good buddies who help coach.

“It’s disappointing that we haven’t had the chance to run the camp, and we haven’t officially canceled it, but it looks more like that’s going to be the outcome with everything going on and the gyms not being allowed to open.”

His stellar high school career at Wyoming Park included becoming the school’s all-time leader in points and assists, while winning the Mr. Basketball Award and taking his team to the Class B Semifinals as a senior in 2004. In one of the most memorable games in MHSAA Tournament history – and before a capacity crowd at the Breslin Center – Neitzel scored 36 points but saw his team fall 79-63 to a Detroit Renaissance eventual champion that included major Division I college prospects Malik Hairston, Joseph Crawford and Tajuan Porter.

Quickly, Neitzel made an impact in East Lansing as well. He was a starting point guard for a majority of his time as a Spartan, and helped Michigan State reach the Final Four as a freshman.

“I couldn’t have written a better college career,” Neitzel said. “You wish you would’ve won more games and went to more Final Fours, but when I look back, to step in and start halfway through my freshman year for Coach Izzo and for him to give me the reins with a senior-heavy team was a great experience.

“That 12 months of my life was absolutely crazy. My senior year of high school going to the Breslin Center, winning Mr. Basketball and then earning a starting spot and going to the Final Four was a wild ride. It was an awesome year for me, personally.”

After not being selected in the 2008 NBA Draft, Neitzel played professionally in Germany and France for five years while also being invited to NBA summer leagues and training camps with Minnesota, Portland and Dallas.

His last taste of the NBA came in 2011 during training camp with the Mavericks. He was eventually cut, and finished the season in the G League.

“That was a great experience,” Neitzel said. “They were a first-class organization and Mark Cuban and Rick Carlise were great. It was the year after they beat Miami in the NBA Finals so they were still on cloud nine from the championship.

“The guys in that locker room were Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom. I was a fly on the wall, and to be around those NBA greats and veterans was definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

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Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four 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) Drew Neitzel attempts a free throw before a packed Breslin Center during the 2004 Class B Semifinals. (Middle) Neitzel, with wife Kristi and son Drake. (Top photo by Gary Shook; middle courtesy of Drew Neitzel.)

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.)