Onsted: Scholars, Athletes, Contenders

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

February 19, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

ONSTED – The Onsted boys basketball team, undefeated at 16-0 and ranked No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Class B poll, can beat an opponent in a number of ways.

Want to run with the Wildcats in a high-scoring game? Coach Brad Maska welcomes it.

“The first time we play teams, we get up and down the floor, and they don’t expect us to do that,” he said.

Want to slow it down, and turn it into a half-court game? Maska welcomes that, too.

“The second time we play, they are trying to slow the game down, and it makes it more like a half-court possession game. That’s fine, too. We can play it both ways.”

However, the most inadvisable way to challenge the Wildcats might not even be on the basketball court. It’s in the classroom, where the basketball team has three of the top 10 students in the school and one of eight student-athletes to win the MHSAA-Farm Bureau Insurance Class B Scholar-Athlete Award, plus a second who was one of 32 finalists.

“Top to bottom, last year we were top 10 in GPA I believe, and we have to be on an average of 3.6 of 3.7 this year,” Maska said.

Top scholars

Senior point guard Dallas Heidbreder carries a near-perfect 3.95 GPA, and somehow he is third on the team in that category. Senior forward Austin Thompson is off the charts with a 4.29 GPA, while senior center Austin Davis checks in at an incredible 4.15.

Thompson was one of the Class B Scholar-Athlete Award winners, and although he is not a starter on the team, he has a huge influence and is quite aware of the basketball history at Onsted. No team had won a District championship since 1983 – a team that compiled a perfect regular season, something Onsted is shooting to duplicate this year.

“It’s an excellent feeling to make a mark for Onsted,” Thompson said. “We’ve talked about 1983, and we’re aware of it. They made it to the Quarterfinals, and that team had guys like the Hubbards and Greg Worker.”

Thompson plans to attend the University of Michigan, where he will major in actuarial mathematics, which he explained is, “using probability and statistics and risk factor. Most likely I will work for an insurance agency calculating insurance rates based on all the risks.”

Davis also is headed to Michigan, and while his intelligence is impressive too, he will as concerned with putting up numbers as charting them. He was the first signee of Michigan’s basketball recruiting class of 2016.

He refuses to take much credit for his academic success, though.

“My parents put a huge emphasis on academics, and they never accepted anything less than my best,” he said. “I’ve been around a great group of people. Our teachers are great here at Onsted, and the community has raised us right.”

Davis said he plans to go into the math or science field after college, unless, of course, playing basketball professionally is an option.

Heidbreder plans to pursue a career in real estate, but unlike Thomson and Davis, he expects to do it at Michigan State University. He’ll likely be wearing green and white in the Izzone at Breslin Center when Davis and the Wolverines visit next year.

“I’ll probably cheer for him a little bit,” Heidbreder said.

Heidbreder’s intelligence and maturity is showing up on the court, too.

“I’ve learned to keep my composure during the game,” he said. “It’s a lot with the refs, too, not to talk or even show any emotion if they make a bad call or anything. You just have to put that aside and keep playing the game.

“Last year I would lose my temper and maybe argue about some calls, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better this year, and it really helps the relationship between the refs and you.”

Really, though, the Wildcats haven’t needed much help from the refs this season.

Special group

Maska is an elementary physical education teacher in Onsted, and he saw this group from the start. An immediate impression was made.

“I had these guys all the way up,” he said. “I do recall going over to the RAC (Rando Activity Center) in Jackson and watching this group play. They probably were sixth or seventh grade, and they were doing really well. They are a group that has always fit well together. They all respect each other and work hard together. It’s a really neat group.

“The thing about this group is they were always good in middle school football, they were good in baseball, they were good in all these sports. Winning was already in the environment with these guys all the way up, so they knew nothing else but winning.”

Winning in basketball had not been a habit at Onsted. After claiming a Class C Regional title in 1983, Onsted did not win another District championship until last year – a span of 31 seasons.

That’s hard to fathom, considering this season’s success so far.

The signature wins this season came against Hillsdale, a team that has been dominant and a nemesis for Onsted. On Jan. 8, Onsted won an up-tempo game 66-62 at Hillsdale. Four weeks later, Onsted survived a different type of game, claiming a 45-34 victory and displaying its ability to win against different styles of play.

Sweeping Hillsdale was huge for the Wildcats.

“For me, I had never beaten Hillsdale ever before, so those two wins – especially the first one – that really boosted our confidence,” Heidbreder said. “It was an amazing feeling playing in front of so many people in the big games like Hillsdale. The stands are packed, and it’s just an awesome feeling.”

Heidbreder has his coach’s trust on the court, too.

“Dallas is a great kid, very cerebral,” Maska said. “He is like having myself on the court. I say something to him, and he knows exactly what I am talking about, and he gets us in the right sets when he needs to. He is playing like a senior point guard should.”

The team is packed with players who do things right, as Maska notes.

“Skyler Lipinski is a 6-6 floor man with unique skills stepping out and hitting shots, so he makes it difficult for teams to double-team Austin (Davis) because he can finish at the rim and do some nice things for us,” Maska said.

“James Deitrich is a sophomore guard who is out with an ankle (injury). We’ve been without him the last three games, so we’re finding ways to win without him. He’s a kid who can slash and get to the rim, and he is a phenomenal defender.

“One of our other guards is Gabe Richardson. He’s a junior who has been up since his freshman year, so he’s had a lot of experience as well. He does a good job defensively, and he’s able to knock down the 3-point shot when called upon, and he does a really nice job for us.

“Patrick Iott has been inserted in the starting lineup as of late. He’s a 3-point shooter, and he’s able to knock down shots when they sag and help, and he’s been able to pick up his defensive effort.

“Isaac Henry is another post player we bring off the bench for us. He’s about 6-3, 6-4, a really athletic kid. Austin Thompson, Josh Jeffords, Kyle Smiths, Brendan Black, we have lots of other guys who we might need for three or four minutes, and they do a tremendous job, and that’s what has been really neat about this group. They’re not worried about points or minutes, they are worried about us winning.”

And the biggest key to Onsted winning? Of course, it’s Davis, the 6-10, 230-pound senior center.

Road to Michigan

Rural schools like Onsted are not breeding grounds for Division I college basketball players, especially for Big Ten Conference schools. But Michigan could not pass on Davis, who began to blossom after playing on a senior-laden summer team after his freshman year in high school. Although he did not get a lot of playing time, it was a beneficial experience.

“That’s when it started to turn for him,” Maska said “He realized he could be pretty special, and he dedicated himself that summer. He had a great year his sophomore year.”

As word spread, Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan made the trip to Onsted to see Davis for himself. But Maska was a little concerned about the timing as Onsted was due to play two games in two nights, and Jordan was going to be on hand for the second game.

“I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s going to be a tougher game, but you are more than welcome to come,’” Maska remembers telling Jordan.

Maska won’t forget what Jordan told him after the game.

“It was really funny at the end of the game – it was a close, back-and-forth game – and LaVall just said, ‘51,’ and I said, ‘Yea, No. 51, that’s who you came to look at.’ And he’s like, ‘No, he had 51 points.’ I didn’t even realize that at the time. They were very impressed with his skill level.”

Davis, who wears uniform No. 51, had scored a career-high 51 points in front of a Michigan assistant coach.

Word was out on Davis, and while it was an exciting time at Onsted, it also was a stressful time for Maska.

“It was hard; I’m not going to say it wasn’t,” he said. “Last year we’re in the locker room after a big game, and I get a phone call from Coach (Fran) McCaffery from Iowa, and he wants us to have a practice on Sunday.

“You look at the team – we don’t normally practice on Sundays – and say, ‘Guys, this guy wants to come look at Austin, and he wants us to go full-court five-on-five,’ and without even questioning it, they were like, ‘Let’s do it, coach.’ They jumped right in.”

Eventually, Michigan coach John Beilein made his way to see Davis play in person, and Maska, a big Michigan fan, felt somewhat overwhelmed.

“It was kind of surreal for me when Coach Beilein came to a practice,” Maska said. “I had my practice plan, and I made a copy and said, ‘Here Coach, here’s my practice plan.’ For me, giving Coach my practice plan and having him look it over and say, ‘You have some good stuff here,’ it was pretty neat for me.

“It’s Austin’s process, but I’ve had a blast through it and met some really good coaches. It’s been just an awesome ride.”

As Davis and the Wildcats have plowed through the schedule, he has been treated somewhat as a friend and a foe at the same time. When asked what he hears more on the court from opposing players, ‘Go Blue’ or ‘Sparty On,’ he smiled and said, ‘The second one.’ ”

Yet, after the game, the opponents seek him out. The cheerleaders from Erie-Mason asked to have their photo taken with him, and a player from Blissfield went over to shake his hand and said, “I can’t wait to watch you on TV. Go Blue.”

Davis takes it all in stride, focusing on the task at hand.

“I’ve had a little bit of fun with it,” he said. “It’s definitely a great opportunity, but I’m going to enjoy this year while I can.  I’ve grown up with everybody on the team for the most part. I got to play three, four years of basketball with them in high school and many more in our younger years.

“I’m just enjoying it right now. We’re having a great year and want to keep it going and prepare for what’s ahead and not overlook what’s happening now.”

Davis said one of his biggest challenges playing for Michigan will be adapting to the style of play. The Wolverines love to put up the 3-pointer, something that was not his strength a few years ago.

“It’s something that I have incorporated into my game the last few years,” he said. “My freshmen and sophomore year, I was a plodder, that’s what they called me, and I’ve had to expand it to play out on the perimeter. It’s definitely something I need to work on and acclimate a little more to it, but I’m very excited to learn every aspect of the game.”

Taska said that has made Davis a much better high school player as well.

“He can shoot it, and with his workouts and such, that was what was so impressive to those guys is he could go out and make seven out of 10 3-pointers,” Maska said. “Do I ask him to do that? I’d be called crazy if I asked Austin to shoot 3s when there is a 5-8 post player out there.

“He’s very skilled, and the one thing Coach Beilein really liked about him was his skill level, being able to pass, catch and shoot it, because in that system you have to be able to do everything. You have to be able to make great passes, you have to be able to catch the ball, and you have to knock down open shots when you get the opportunity.

“Many thought he was just a big kid, but we knew the skill level – we knew it was a tremendous fit for him at Michigan.”

End game

A team can’t be 16-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state and not be thinking about winning an MHSAA championship. But Maska stopped short of saying this was a “state championship or bust” situation.

“There is a lot of pressure, and we talk about that as a team,” he said. “There is pressure, and there is stress. Stress you want to get rid of as much as possible. Pressure is good, and if you are prepared, we love that kind of pressure and opportunity.

“As a coach, you want it to be one of the most enjoyable seasons, but there is a lot of pressure every game.”

Maska, in his ninth season as basketball coach at Onsted, is a tireless worker, a devoted teacher in practice and a respected leader.

“He cares about this team a lot,” Heidbreder said. “He spends countless hours breaking down film to try to make our team better. He focuses on what aspects in each game we need to work on. If we give up some offensive rebounds, we’ll spend the whole next day boxing out. If we look tired, we’ll start running, and if we’re not shooting well, we’ll start shooting.

“He knows what to do for us. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had in building a relationship with the players.”

Davis, about to step onto a much larger stage, will leave Onsted with a lot of respect for Maska and the coaching staff.

“He puts in so much time outside of practice breaking down film, scouting other teams and looking at what we need to do to get better,” Davis said. “He’s amazing in that aspect. We also have amazing assistant coaches, and our whole staff varsity through freshmen is amazing. They’ve pushed us through our entire careers here, and I’m very honored to have played for them.”

Brains and brawn have mixed well for the Onsted basketball team.

“It comes from home,” Maska said. “These kids are tremendous kids who have great parents at home. They have goals – they’re very goal-orientated – and it allows me not to worry about other things. I don’t have to look at that eligibility sheet to see who is ineligible or who is struggling in class.

“It does make us more cerebral, although basketball knowledge and academic knowledge don’t always mix well, but with this group it does. They are very smart in the classroom, and they know basketball. They know the game, and it allows me to maybe add three or four more plays that we wouldn’t normally do with other groups.

“They just click in that sense as they are very intelligent.”

Intelligent … and undefeated. 

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onsted's boys basketball team lines up for the national anthem before their game against Dundee on Feb. 2. (Middle) Guard Austin Thompson drives for a layup against Hudson on Jan. 12. (Middle below) Point guard Dallas Heidbreder sets the offense against Hillsdale on Feb. 5. (Below) Center Austin Davis dunks home two points against Blissfield on Feb. 11. (Photos courtesy of the Onsted boys basketball program.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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 MHSAA.com 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.)