North Central Finishes 3-Peat Perfectly

March 25, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – For the last three seasons and 83 straight games, Powers North Central’s boys basketball team has been perfect.

And for the first eight minutes Saturday, as these Jets played together for the last time, they couldn't have been much better.

Buckley never recovered completely from one of the most impressive opening barrages in recent Finals history. But the Bears did make North Central work to add this latest win, a 78-69 victory to claim a third straight Class D championship.

In their last game together, Jets senior starters Jason Whitens, Dawson Bilski, Bobby Kleiman, Marcus Krachinski and Seth Polfus all contributed as the team made its first 15 shots. Bilski tied the MHSAA championship game record for points in a quarter with 18 in the first as North Central as a team fell just shy of making the list for most points in a quarter, putting up 38 total – enough of a run to help them survive a nearly-as-epic comeback by the Bears, who also were undefeated heading into the day.

“Over the past couple of years, kids like me and Seth and Marcus, we never had the starting spots coming up. We had to wait a little while. We had to play our role,” Kleiman said. “But having two players like Jason and Dawson, that makes us just as good a players as them. They help us every day. They’re the ones who make us better. When things get tight, we look to them.”

“(But) we’re a team. And that’s where a lot of teams lack, is the team part. They have individuals, but us, we’re family. We love each other. And this whole ride has just been crazy, and we’ll never forget it.”

The Jets finished 28-0, and sit 83-0 over the last three seasons after again extending the nation’s longest active winning streak. Whitens capped his high school career with a 108-1 record over four varsity seasons, giving him not only a state record for wins but also breaking the record by four for most varsity boys basketball games played in MHSAA history. Bilski also started on all three championship teams and joined Whitens earning Class D all-state honors earlier this week. On Jan. 27, with their 66th straight win, they broke the MHSAA record for consecutive wins previously set by Chassell from 1956-58.

Coming off Thursday’s one-point, buzzer-beating Semifinal victory over Southfield Christian, Saturday’s start made it seem like a Jets victory lap was about to begin. At the end of the first quarter, North Central led 38-20 and had made 15 of 17 shots from the floor.

But much to Buckley’s credit, it didn’t show a sign of folding. The Bears were dominated by star juniors and will surprise no one if they make another run in 2018. Despite entering Saturday with a 26-0 record, they weren’t expected by most to win – but never let that sink in, even while staring up at a double-digit deficit less than four minutes into the game.

“I was just thinking man, they’re shooting the lights out. They’ve been here before, they’re all seniors, they want it that bad. We’ve just got to match their intensity,” Buckley junior Denver Cade said. “Sometimes they’re just putting them up there, going in, and you’re holding on. After that’s done, you’re just right back going at them, so we did.”

Buckley won the second and fourth quarters and tied North Central 10-10 in the third, taking advantage in part as Bilski left the game for an extended period after picking up his fourth foul just 1:32 into the second half.

But his absence may have only kept the Jets from increasing the lead – he re-entered with 6:30 to play and the Jets up 13, but from there Buckley launched a 13-3 run over four minutes to pull within 68-65 on Ridge Beeman’s basket with 2:41 to play. 

“If we score 38 points in a quarter, typically teams kinda roll over,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said. “That didn’t happen today, and that’s a credit to those Buckley kids. We had to fight tooth and nail with them in the fourth quarter. I was just so proud of our kids, the way they finished this game.

“For these guys, it just comes with the territory. I sat here two or three years ago, trying to explain this group of boys – now they’re men – we just talked about that ‘it’ factor. It starts with these seniors and the seniors we had in the past, and that ‘it’ factor rings through with all of them.”

And as Kleiman said, when things got tight, the Jets turned to their accomplished stars.

Bilski and Whitens combined to score nine points during a 10-4 run to finish the game and a legacy that may not be approached for another half-century.

“You don’t think a team’s going to back down. You always have to keep coming back at them,” said Whitens, who also quarterbacked two straight undefeated football teams. “Respect to them for just keeping coming at us. It makes the game more fun. That’s what it’s all about, opponents going head to head, and they didn’t quit. We just had to keep going at it, and had a lot of fun doing it.”  

Saturday's Final was the first featuring two undefeated teams since Shelby downed Stockbridge 71-57 in the 1971 Class C championship game. It was the first Class D Final pitting undefeated teams since Covert beat Ewen-Trout Creek 84-70 in 1966. 

Bilski, who will continue his career at Michigan Tech, scored 25 points in just 20 minutes, making 8 of 9 shots from the floor. Whitens – a Mr. Basketball Award finalist this season – had 23 points on 8 of 11 shooting, while Kleiman added 12 points and Krachinski had 11 and seven assists.

Cade also scored 25 points with seven rebounds, and junior center Austin Harris had 22 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Joey Weber added 15 more points and seven rebounds for the Bears.

All five Buckley starters should return next season.

“We’re going to use that as fuel. When we see them holding up that trophy, we’re not going to pout and cry about it,” Harris said. “We’re going to get really, really mad, get back in the gym, and do it really hard and see if we can win next year. You haven’t seen the last of us.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman drives to the basket during Saturday’s Class D Final. (Middle) The Jets’ Marcus Krachinski tries to block a shot by Buckley’s Denver Cade.

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.)