North Central Finishes Memorable Run

March 28, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Powers North Central’s three-season quest to win its first boys basketball championship since 1984 will go down as one of the most successful in MHSAA history.

And how the Jets finished this winter should make them among to most memorable Class D champions for at least a few seasons to come.

North Central capped the run with a 67-47 win over Morenci in Saturday’s Final at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, and in doing so pushed its three-season record to 75-5 – with the wins tied for seventh-most over three seasons in MHSAA history. 

The Jets finished this winter 27-0, combining what coach Adam Mercier calls a lost art, a sizable lineup unlike any Morenci had faced this season, and an incredible scoring touch that showed to a statewide crowd when North Central hit an unreal 70 percent of its shots from the floor during the first half.

“We have a lot of skill players, a lot of kids who love basketball,” Mercier said. “These kids just play a style that I like to coach, and I know fans like seeing.” 

North Central’s last two seasons had ended in the Semifinals and Quarterfinals, respectively. Despite entering this postseason ranked No. 1 in Class D, a pre-Breslin exit looked possible with five top-10 teams hailing from the Upper Peninsula, and three playing in the Jets’ Regional.

They dispatched No. 5 Munising in the Regional Semifinal, then No. 7 Lake Linden-Hubbell in the Regional championship game. North Central downed another top-10 team, No. 6 Hillman, in the Quarterfinal. 

Morenci wasn’t ranked heading into the playoffs – but eliminated previously-undefeated and No. 3 Waterford Our Lady in its Semifinal. Still, and despite playing a Class C-heavy schedule, Morenci hadn’t faced a team with North Central’s ability to put three players on the floor 6-foot-4 or taller, and all capable of handling the ball, scoring – and this season, playing much better defense as well.

“When your gameplan is to do your best to not let them beat you to the basket, make them shoot from the outside, and then you see continual 3 after 3 going in, it’s kinda deflating,” Morenci coach Jim Bauer said. 

The Jets made 10 of 13 first-quarter shots – 77 percent – including a pair of 3-pointers in jumping out to a 26-17 lead.

Senior Rob Granquist Jr. had nine of his 11 points during the opening period. 

“Coach and the guys told me to be aggressive,” Granquist said. “It’s my last game, so I was going to go out and do what I do. They trust me, and we trust each other.”

The margin between the teams never got smaller than 18 points during the second half.

Senior center Torin Merillat finished his Morenci career with 11 points, 12 rebounds and three steals. Senior point guard Austin Sandusky also finished with 11 points. But the team’s 3-point shooting success of Thursday's Semifinal and throughout this season wasn't of assistance Saturday – the Bulldogs (24-3) made only 4 of 28 attempts from beyond the arc – and total they connected on only 29 percent of their shots from the field in their first MHSAA championship game appearance.

“We knew lightning would have to strike, when we’re playing a team with that size, quickness, ball-handling, rebounders; that team had it all,” Bauer said. “I talked (to our team) about if we played them 10 times, they’d probably beat us nine, but we were hoping today we’d strike a little magic, play a perfect game and hang with them. For the most part, we did a respectable job. 

“The guys played with all their heart, what I’ve asked of them all year long. They have nothing to be ashamed of, I don’t think.”

Sophomore guard Jason Whitens led North Central with 19 points, making 9 of his 12 shots, and also had seven rebounds and four assists. Junior center Caleb Martin added 13 points and sophomore guard Bobby Kleiman also had 13 points, plus six rebounds. 

Granquist and guard Ryan Whitens are the team’s only seniors. The MHSAA doesn’t keep a listing for best win-loss record over four seasons, but the Jets will be worth following again as they pursue 100 wins and a second straight team title in 2015-16.

“They’re basketball savvy, and you see that on the floor. They knew where they’re passing before they get the ball even. We don’t have set positions. We play in space. … I’m not a big set guy,” Mercier said. “It’s a matter of getting guys in good position to score and being ready to roll." 

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

PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central players and fans celebrate after clinching their first MHSAA title since 1984. (Middle) North Central’s Dawson Bilski (left) and Morenci's Bobby Black scramble for a loose ball.

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.)