Niles Boys Hoops Able to Lay Low - for Now - but Climbing Toward Contention

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

February 27, 2024

NILES – Niles isn’t a school you will hear mentioned in conversations about the best boys basketball teams in Michigan.

Southwest CorridorBut Niles head coach Myles Busby, his coaching staff and players prefer living in obscurity on the hardwood. Being an unknown could prove beneficial for Niles at this week's Division 2 District Tournament at Edwardsburg.

Niles is in arguably one of the state's toughest Districts with top-seeded and statewide No. 2-ranked Benton Harbor (20-1) sitting on the other side of the bracket. The Tigers and Vikings are on a collision course to meet in Friday's Final.

The Vikings are fresh off of winning their first Wolverine Conference title since joining the league with the 2021-22 school year. Busby was a sophomore in 2010 the last time Niles (13-1 Wolverine Conference, 17-5 overall) won a league title in the sport, as part of the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference. 

Two of the Vikings' five losses this winter came to Lakeland Conference co-champs Benton Harbor (47-45) and Niles Brandywine (56-43). Niles' other three losses came to South Bend Clay, Ind. (64-57) and Lansing Everett (53-40). The Everett game was part of the Love and Basketball Showcase hosted by Kalamazoo Loy Norrix on Feb. 3.

Second-place Otsego (60-49) handed Niles its only conference defeat Feb. 2, avenging an earlier-season loss on the Vikings' home floor (62-52).

Busby said his team's 49-41 win over Chicago North Lawndale Charter (Ill.) – on Dec. 16 in the Tri-State Holiday Classic at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac – helped serve as a momentum builder for the remainder of the season.

Following a nine-game winning streak, Niles suffered back-to-back losses to Otsego and Everett before winning four out of its last five contests.

"In between these walls (our school gym) and when we're on the floor, we know how good we can be. We have the best coaching staff in the area. We know our guys put in a lot of work,” Busby said. “For us, it's just challenging our team to work incredibly hard every single day because that's not common and we don't want to be common. You must do the things other teams aren't doing.

Niles players and coaches hold up the 2024 Wolverine Conference championship banner after defeating Plainwell last week. "We have several new pieces this year with a lot of young guys. Now we have to focus on hitting our stride at the right time. Those two straight losses helped us get refocused. We don't care about what everyone else thinks about us. No one talks about Niles in the preseason rankings, and that's fine. We try to use that as fuel and strive for more."

Niles is led by senior point guard and three-year varsity letter winner Mike Phillips Jr. Phillips averages 20 points, three assists and four rebounds per game.

"We just try and take things one step at a time. Our goals after winning conference are to win Districts and make a long run in the postseason," Phillips said. "Our seniors strive to lift everyone up. We just need to pick one another up every day when someone gets down on themself. This team is viewed as the underdog by a lot of people. We use that as our motivation. It's important to focus on the mental part of the game each day."

Phillips, who has received interest from college programs at various levels, is shooting 50 percent from the floor, including 43 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

"Every one of our seniors and other players on the team have really bought into fulfilling their individual roles. It helps when you have one of the best players in the area like Mike," Busby said.

Sophomore Brayden Favors, son of varsity assistant head coach Desmond Favors, handles the other guard spot.

"Brayden has a ton of potential. He's not even close to growing into the player he'll be two years from now as a senior,” Busby said. “He really worked hard on his shooting last summer. This summer we will work on building up his strength. He's a well-rounded player who likes to defend.”

Brayden Favors, who lettered on the varsity as a freshman, averages 12.5 points, three assists and four rebounds per game and is shooting 52 percent from the field.

Senior forward Ethan Chambliss is averaging a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, along with two blocked shots. He is shooting 64 percent from the floor for the Vikings.

"Ethan is a great kid who does well academically. On the court, he has a big heart and takes a beating every night. He's not the biggest guy on the floor, but does all the dirty stuff inside for us," Busby noted.

From left: Niles assistant boys basketball coach Desmond Favors, Brayden Favors, Mike Phillips Jr., and head coach Myles Busby.Sophomore wing Brenden Olsen is another key player. He averages nine points and five boards and is shooting 54 percent from the floor. Busby noted that sophomore Acie Kirtdoll is the future point guard and leader, and senior forward Darris Johnson, III, along with 6-foot-7 freshman post player Donovyn Williams also play vital roles. The final senior on Niles' roster is wing Logan Olsen, who Busby noted for his hustle plays.

"The best kind of teams are led by their players and not the coaches. This is a player-led team, but you have to demand excellence,” Busby said. “This group has done a great job of rallying around one another when someone isn't playing very well and has instilled confidence in each other."

Busby and Desmond Favors both come from families with strong basketball traditions.

Myles' father Mike Busby, also one of the Vikings' current assistant coaches, and his uncle Gerald Busby played on Buchanan's Class C championship team in 1976. Gerald Busby would lead the Bucks to another title two years later as a senior in 1978. James Busby, another uncle, played on Buchanan's 1985 District title squad.

After Niles won its District in Myles Busby's senior season, 2011-12, the Vikings experienced an 11-year drought before capturing the 2023 District crown. That run included an upset of Benton Harbor in the District Semifinal, 65-61. 

Grand Rapids South Christian, the eventual Division 2 runner-up, then defeated Niles 72-33 in a Regional Semifinal at Vicksburg.

"When I was in school, we always had to beat Kalamazoo Central to get out of Districts. They always beat us and were usually ranked No. 1 in the state coming into the tournament. It took us four years to finally win a District beating Kalamazoo Central, Mattawan and Kalamazoo Loy Norrix," Myles Busby recalled.

After graduating from Niles, Myles played two years at Mott Community College under Hall of Fame coach Steve Schmidt before transferring to Urbana University, a Division II school in Ohio. He finished his college career at Chadron State College in Nebraska.

Phillips Jr. attempts a 3-pointer this season.Busby returned to his roots serving as a varsity assistant for Niles during the 2019-20 season. He became interim head coach late in the 2020-21 campaign before being awarded the position permanently before the following winter.

"Taking over the program was a tough decision. I had never intended on coming back to Niles, but I wanted to help revive the program and keep the improvement trend going upward," Busby said. "There's no secret recipe after you put your coaching staff together. Once you get kids in your program who are good leaders with great character, you just have to keep working hard each day. It's those traits that we feel are a big key so far to our success. It's not always about how much talent you have."

Busby believes things started heading in a positive direction after his 2022-23 ballclub began the season 2-4. The Vikings were then 6-9 into the beginning of February but finished 15-11.

"At that point, I think we won nine out of our last 10 games and managed to find our rhythm in time to win our District," Myles Busby said.

Niles has enjoyed past success, including reaching the 2000 Class B Semifinals before losing to Orchard Lake St. Mary's. Current Niles athletic director Matt Brawley was a standout senior post player on that Vikings' squad.

Desmond Favors came to Niles from Detroit his sophomore year of high school and began playing for the Vikings his junior year, 2000-01.

"We won Districts my junior year and lost to Grand Rapids South Christian in the state Quarterfinals my senior season," said Favors, who also played collegiately for Lake Michigan College, Northwood University and Indiana University-South Bend – at IUSB for current Notre Dame head coach Micah Schrewsberry.

Favors was an assistant for the Vikings during Busby’s senior season. "I've known Myles for over 20 years, and we're just very familiar with one another. We're always bouncing ideas around and talking basketball," Favors said.

He enjoys being a part of the coaching staff especially with his son Brayden moving through the program now.

"Initially Brayden was a baseball player. He started working on his game the summer between his eighth and ninth grade year. As a freshman he got put up on varsity and did pretty well,” Desmond Favors said. “He spent a lot of time this past offseason working on ballhandling and making plays. For me, it’s fun watching him.”

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Niles senior forward Ethan Chambliss (23) scores inside against Three Rivers. (2) Niles players and coaches hold up the 2024 Wolverine Conference championship banner after defeating Plainwell last week. (3) From left: Niles assistant boys basketball coach Desmond Favors, Brayden Favors, Mike Phillips Jr., and head coach Myles Busby. (4) Phillips Jr. attempts a 3-pointer this season. (Top photo coach/player photo by Scott Hassinger; banner photo courtesy of the Niles athletic department. Phillips action shot by Jeff Douglas/Leader Publications.)

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.)