New Reality has Roseville Dreaming Big

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 30, 2019

ROSEVILLE – Something happened last February that produced a dramatic effect on the Roseville boys basketball team.

It’s difficult for Roseville coach Hassan Nizam to put into words – but he’s certain that his team’s trip to Ann Arbor to play Pioneer and, more importantly, their visit to the Crisler Center to watch a University of Michigan practice had a positive impact on last year’s team and the program as a whole.

“(The U-M staff) gave us a tour,” Nizam said. “It was eye-opening. There was something about it. I can’t even explain it. We’ve lost twice since. Maybe it turned them into dreamers.”

Roseville won seven straight after losing that game to Pioneer before a 44-39 defeat to Macomb Dakota in a Class A Regional Semifinal ended the Panthers’ season.

They’ve stormed back this winter and sit 13-1 entering the final month of the regular season, with their only loss coming at Dakota, 55-52, in the fifth game. Roseville avenged that loss with a 63-56 victory at home Jan. 15 and is ranked No. 3 in Division 1 in the latest Associated Press poll.

The Panthers are 8-1 in the Macomb Area Conference Red and have clinched a share of the title. They can win it outright with a victory at Sterling Heights Stevenson on Monday.

After that and over the next two months, Roseville is shaping up as a possibility to not only make school history, but carry its entire area into an elite scenario for the first time.  

Teams from Macomb County have rarely been relevant come tournament time. Not only has a Macomb County team never won a Class A (now Division 1) title, the county has never been represented in a Class A Final in boys basketball. Warren DeLaSalle made the Class B Final in 1982 and has come close to breaking that county barrier, reaching Class A Semifinals in 1986, 2007 and last season. Dakota also lost in the Class A Semifinals in 2016.

Enter Roseville. The program has had limited success in the MHSAA Tournament – last season the Panthers finished 16-7 and won just the fourth District title in program history. They’ve never won a Regional.

Talent has come through in the past, but didn’t always guarantee a postseason run. Sir’Dominic Pointer (known as Dominick Pointer while attending Roseville) played two seasons at Roseville before transferring to a prep school in North Carolina, then played collegiately at St. John’s and was selected as the 53rd pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by Cleveland. He is currently playing professionally in Israel. Still, Roseville was not able to get past the District round in either of his seasons.

But on the positive side, this team is coming off that District title and has plenty of experience to go with ability. Four starters are back including seniors Darien Banks, Lazell Judge and John Ukomadu. The other returning start is junior point guard Martell Turner who, if he isn’t the team’s best, is likely the team’s most important player. The fifth starter is senior Deshaun Wright.

At 24, Nizam is one of the state’s youngest head coaches and his upbeat coaching style has had a rippling effect. This attitude impressed those who were responsible for hiring him, notably school principal Pat Adams.

“Our search for a new coach was centered on someone who loved kids and was passionate about the game,” Adams said. “In Coach Niz, we struck gold on both accounts.  A big part of changing the culture in a building is to have the kids believe in themselves, feel pride in who they represent, and respect the leaders who spend time with them. We believe Coach Niz has demonstrated that he's a very important part of that formula and will continue to be as the program evolves.”

A 2012 graduate of Dearborn Fordson, Nizam spent three seasons as the junior varsity and varsity assistant at Fordson before becoming an assistant at U-M Dearborn for the 2016-17 season. Nizam said one of his first objectives when he was hired at Roseville in May of 2017 was to build consistency.

“I was just an assistant coach looking for an opportunity,” he said. “As far as the program here, I knew they had had some success. The transition was pretty smooth, and the kids bought in. (Sir’)Dominic stops by every now and then, and the kids appreciate that. The guys have to understand that individual success comes from team success.”

Last season was one of the most successful in school history. As a member of the MAC White, Roseville competed in the MAC Red/White division playoffs and defeated Clinton Township Chippewa Valley for the title. Two weeks later, Roseville won the District title by defeating St. Clair Shores Lake Shore 80-77.

Roseville opted to move up to the MAC Red this season, and one result is a more competitive schedule. In addition to the increase in competition the Red affords, the Panthers defeated DeLaSalle to open the winter, then defeated Division 2 contender New Haven at New Haven and slipped past Cincinnati Withrow (Ohio), 42-39, at the Motor City Roundball Classic.

“We kind of have the approach that we want to get better each game,” Nizam said. “We’ve got a chance to win the MAC Red, the MAC title, a District title and a Regional. It’s that day-to-day thing we like to emphasize.”

What makes this team better than last season’s is Roseville’s play on the defensive end. The players are communicating better, switching assignments when teams run a motion offense and playing help defense.

In Roseville’s 65-60 victory over New Haven, the Panthers held Romeo Weems – New Haven’s best player and a likely candidate for the Mr. Basketball Award – to 20 points. As a team, Roseville has allowed 45 points per game. And just one team, New Haven, has scored in the 60s.

“That New Haven game was big for us,” Nizam said. “They hadn’t lost a game at home in like six years. We weren’t going to let Weems beat us. Our kids believed in each other that game. After that, their confidence went way up. It showed we can be a problem for any team.”

Offensively, Roseville likes to score in transition, but its half-court sets have improved since last season as well. Banks is an accurate 3-point shooter and leads the team in scoring at 21 points per game. Turner is the table-setter who averages seven assists. Ukomadu is a 6-foot-7 post player who jumps well, and Judge is a 6-1 lefty who plays the wing.

Wright is a 6-3 power forward who possesses a good mid-range jump shot. And he’s one example of why the program has shown promise and is on the rise. Wright never played high school basketball before this season. He played basketball in middle school before concentrating on football his first three years of high school.

Wright saw the success the team had last season and, in the end, it was Nizam’s coaching style that won him over.

“I caught a few games at the end of last year,” Wright said. “I liked (Nizam’s) enthusiasm. He wants to win as much as we do. He wants it just as bad as we do. My mom (Ruth Wright) told me, to be a two-sport athlete coming out of high school would help me in college. I would love to play either one in college.”

Wright has yet to decide on which school he will attend next fall, and he is expected to take a visit to Urbana University in Ohio before making his decision.

In the meantime, Wright’s focus is on his teammates and continuing what they together have started.

“Once we step on the floor, we’re connected,” he said. “Our goal is to get better every game.

“Sharpen the ax. And we are getting better every day. I know by the way we compete against each other in practice.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Roseville’s John Ukomadu throws down a dunk during a scrimmage. (Middle) Panthers players huddle with coach Hassan Nizam. (Photos by Brian Sevald Photo.)

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.)