New Haven Grows into Class B Contender

March 24, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Eric Williams, Jr., has learned a lot about becoming a champion these last few seasons.

And as Williams has grown, so too has New Haven’s success on the basketball court.

The Rockets will find themselves playing in their first MHSAA championship game Saturday night, thanks to a 78-49 win over Benton Harbor on Friday in what was the program’s first Semifinal as well.

Williams had 22 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, continuing a closing run that could see him leave an unprecedented legacy at the school. He had 11 points, six rebounds and two steals in the first quarter Friday, setting the tone from the start.

“I just came out looking to be aggressive more, because last game I was just out there. I think I had to come in and prove something,” Williams said.

“I’ve learned I’ve just gotta stay calm and not get stage fright on the big stage. Learning to play defense and what team basketball really is, I think I’ve learned that over the (last) few years.”

New Haven (25-1) will face Ludington in the final game of this season, Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. Class B Final. 

Williams, a 6-foot-5 guard, entered this week averaging 20.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.8 steals per game. New Haven coach Tedaro France II said after Friday’s win that upping his defense has made Williams a complete player – and that newfound all-around game has made him “one of the hottest players in the state right now.”

The first Semifinal came three days after the Rockets' third straight Quarterfinal. They are now 72-5 during this three-season run, and Williams’ rise is just an example of how experience has benefitted the team as a whole.

“That’s something as a coach you can’t teach,” France said. “Kids have to play in big games, and sometimes like with these guys, we have to fail first before we have success. And we’ve failed a lot.

“Me, I say to our kids, let’s win today. And in practice each day, we fail. I say, let’s learn from our mistakes. I don’t mind if they make 10 mistakes, but let’s not make the same ones. And I think our kids are learning to play through adversity. They know they can make mistakes, then just go back and get back on defense."

Following Williams’ hot start, New Haven took a 22-10 lead into the second quarter and a 43-19 advantage into halftime. The lead got up to 38 during the fourth quarter before Benton Harbor (22-4) finished on a 9-0 run.  

The Tigers entered the postseason ranked No. 5 by The Associated Press – New Haven was No. 3 – and had plenty of success as well this season. But they struggled this time to get into a groove against an opponent that beat them at their own game.

New Haven excelled defensively, holding Benton Harbor to 33 percent shooting and taking advantage of 17 turnovers. The Rockets turned on the transition game, to the point Tigers freshman center Carlos Johnson said, “When we’re running up the floor … they were already up there.”

Benton Harbor also is used to outrebounding its opponents, and Johnson had 10. But as coach Corey Sterling said, it was like New Haven had “two or three Carloses” – the Rockets won the rebounding edge 44-31.

“Pretty much we do pressure defense and get out in transition, but they didn’t turn the ball over and they made shots, and that’s pretty much it,” Sterling said. “It seemed like they had an answer for everything we threw at them tonight.”

In addition to Johnson being one of the most highly-regarded freshmen in the state – and finishing with nine points and five blocks to go with those 10 boards – the game also featured one of the state's top sophomores in New Haven forward Romeo Weems, who tallied 14 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Sophomore guard Roland Jeffery II added 10 points for the Rockets.

Junior guard Elijah Baxter scored 14 points to top Benton Harbor, which played in its second Semifinal in four seasons – and perhaps began a string of championship weekend trips to come.

“We’ve only got two seniors really in our rotation, and this is a good experience for guys like Elijah, Carson, Shawn (Hopkins) and Dennie (Brown),” Sterling said. “Now we know how to get here … now let’s work hard in the summer to take the necessary steps to try to win it all.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) New Haven’s Eric Williams, Jr., (2) looks to pass over Benton Harbor’s Carlos Johnson. (Middle) The Rockets’ A.J. Crawford III splits a pair of Tigers defenders during Friday’s Class B Semifinal. 

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.)