Newest Champs Earn Spot in Milan Lore

March 22, 2014

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING — Milan's postgame celebration quickly went from the court to the stands.

Spectators who didn't understand what was taking place were befuddled when the Big Reds headed into the seats at the Breslin Center before receiving their championship trophy. One by one, they hugged an older gentleman many of them may not have heard of until a few days earlier.

The man was Harlan Benjamin, a member of Milan's 1948 MHSAA Class C championship basketball team. The Big Reds, playing beyond the Regionals for the first time since, found inspiration from this living, breathing embodiment of the school's athletic history.

"He inspired them before the game," Milan coach Josh Tropea said after the championship drought ended with a 78-59 victory over Benton Harbor in the Class B Final on Saturday. "They wanted to make sure they showed their appreciation."

Benjamin, 81, was a sophomore on the Milan team that beat Saginaw Ss. Peter & Paul, 45-42, for the Class C title. He went on to win the 120-yard and 180-yard hurdles at the 1950 Class C Track and Field Final, an accomplishment that led to his enshrinement in the Milan sports Hall of Fame.

He spoke with the Big Reds on Tuesday before their MHSAA Quarterfinal game against Wayland. He sought out Milan assistant coach Chris Pope before Saturday's title game and presented him with a memento.

"He gave us his state championship patch and he duct-taped over the '1948' and put '2014,' and said, 'Go win one for me,'" Tropea said. "To have him here and to have him on the floor with us after the game, like I told the kids on Thursday before we came here, whether you win this thing or not, someone's going to want you to speak in 40, 50, 60 years from now. After this weekend, they've solidified that. They're going to be remembered forever in Milan."

There's a good chance that it won't take 66 years for Milan to celebrate another MHSAA championship.

Four of the Big Reds' five starters are juniors, including the stars of Saturday's game.

Junior guard Latin Davis was 7 for 7 from 3-point range, tying the Finals record for baskets beyond the arc, while scoring a career-high 34 points. Nick Perkins, a 6-foot-7 junior center, scored 24 points on 10 for 16 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.

"All year, we've been selling that players three through eight have to be the difference, because we know what Nick and Latin are going to do," Tropea said. "Before we went on the floor tonight, we said, 'Tonight, it's about the stars.' The best players showed up, and they won the game for us."

Davis' performance was particularly memorable.

He became the fifth player in Finals history to hit that 3-point mark. But only he and Berrien Springs' Shelby Wood (Class C, 2006) had a perfect shooting night from long range.

"I was coming off screens and was just feeling it, so I just shot it," said Davis, who averaged 1.3 3-pointers a game and never made more than five before Saturday. "My coach has been telling me to shoot off ball screens all year, so that's what I did tonight. I just kept shooting. I made one and kept hitting them and just kept shooting."

Toriano Smith of Saginaw Buena Vista (1990, Class B), Andrew Mitchell of Detroit East Catholic (1997, Class D) and Brian Watkins of Detroit Rogers (2005, Class D) also hit seven 3-pointers in a Final.

"Basically, we just tried to get out of the way," Perkins said. "After you set a screen once and he's shooting like that, he's basically going to make every one. After the fourth one, when we saw them start falling and he's draining it, you just keep letting him shoot."

Benton Harbor took its only lead when a 3-pointer by Jaton Gunn made it a 3-2 game with 6:07 left in the first quarter. Milan never trailed after scoring the next six points.

The Big Reds led 22-15 after one quarter, hitting seven consecutive field goal attempts during one stretch. They built their lead to 32-22 on a 3-pointer by Davis with 4:27 left in the second quarter, taking a 43-35 lead into halftime. Davis had 17 points in the first half on 7 for 17 shooting, dishing out three assists. Perkins had 14 points in the first half, shooting 7 for 11 and grabbing five rebounds.

Benton Harbor did not sub in the first half, while Milan got backups Thomas Lindeman (six minutes) and Garrett Gardette (four minutes) extensive playing time in the second quarter after going with its starters for the first. The Tigers' first substitution came with 6:06 left in the third quarter.

Davis opened the second half by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers, igniting an 8-0 run that extended Milan's lead to 51-35 with 5:25 left in the third quarter. The Tigers cut the lead to 56-46 with 2:25 left in the third, but the Big Reds scored the final nine points of the quarter to take a 65-46 lead into the fourth.

"The difference was in the third quarter we actually started playing some defense," Tropea said. "We hang our hat on our defense. It really wasn't there in the first half. That's all we talked about at halftime was we've got to do a better job rebounding the basketball, not giving up so many second-chance points and transition points. We really clamped down in the third quarter."

It didn't appear that this would be the season that Milan (25-3) ended that title drought when the Big Reds lost their first two games and started out 5-3. But they ended the season with a 20-game winning streak.

Benton Harbor (17-10), playing in its 10th MHSAA Final and first since 1993, was attempting to win its first crown since repeating as Class A champion in 1965. Overcoming Milan's 58.5-percent shooting from the floor proved to be too much for the Tigers.

"They were hot," Benton Harbor coach Corey Sterling said. "We had a game plan. We had hands up, but (Davis), I don't think he missed a three. Then the big (Perkins) was a force down low. 

“We already knew, win or lose, we were proud of this bunch. We came in unranked. So, it might hurt right now, but like I told you (Friday), God is still good. He blessed the city. These two seniors (John Robinson Jr. and Cortez Moore) brought the city together. It's something to be proud of. There's been love all over. We just ran into a hot team tonight."

Robinson had 19 points, Jaton Gunn 16 and Moore 13 for Benton Harbor. Gunn had 11 points in the first quarter, hitting three 3-pointers.

Milan played without starting senior forward Jake Novak, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee during Tuesday's Quarterfinal victory. He walked onto the court on crutches during pregame introductions and greeted each of Milan's starters as they were called out.

"It felt really great to know that everybody cares about this team so much," Novak said. "It's really nice to see the whole community come out and support the team. It's nice to know everybody cares. Even though I can't play, I was doing everything I can to help the team."

Click for the full box score and video from the press conference

PHOTOS: (Top) Milan celebrates its first MHSAA title since 1948 by hoisting the trophy at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Milan’s Latin Davis tries to get around Benton Harbor’s John Robinson, Jr.

HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Benton Harbor's John Robinson Jr. scored in transition in the second quarter of the Class B championship game against Milan. Robinson led the Tigers in scoring with 19. (2) Nick Perkins makes a Calvin Johnson-esque catch of a long pass by Lance Lewis for the dunk in the Class B title game. Perkins had 24 points and 10 rebounds for Milan, which defeated Benton Harbor, 78-59.

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.)