P-W Earns Chance at 1st Championship

March 14, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Pewamo-Westphalia always seems to be in the mix. The Pirates haven’t had a losing record since 1998-99, the last season before coach Luke Pohl returned to the program after two years away and led 19 straight winners.

Maybe last year’s seniors, coming off an 18-6 finish, wanted to provide their replacements with a little bit of additional motivation.

“Our seniors last year, pretty much all of our starters, were saying we’re not going to be good this year,” P-W senior Andre Smith said. “That we were actually going to be worse. That motivated us to all put in work over the offseason and get better.

“We were putting in a lot of work. But (to get) this far? I didn’t really think that much. But we’re here and we put in that much work, and it’s paid off.”

For the third time in its history, P-W has earned an opportunity to play for its first championship. The Pirates advanced to Saturday with a 60-45 Division 3 Semifinal win over Erie-Mason on Thursday at the Breslin Center.

P-W (27-0) will meet also-unbeaten Iron Mountain in the 4:30 p.m. championship game. It will be the program’s third appearance in the Final – the Pirates finished Class C runners-up in 1993 and 2014.

After another long football season – P-W finished 11-1 and made the Division 7 Regional Finals – a mostly new crew of basketball contributors worked to get up to speed before an opening night that also was a week earlier than usual this season.

To be honest, P-W may not have been even the favorite in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference – which produced three District champions this winter. But the Pirates downed favorite Dansville by 18 in their second game of the season, and Smith and his teammates knew then they might be on to something special – even if Pohl as well didn’t really expect to still be playing on the season’s last day.

“You just don’t know. You only have two starters back, but we’ve just jelled,” Pohl said. “We’ve done a lot of things well defensively, made it hard for offensive teams. We have great length, and a lot of guys have put in extra time. Andre took a huge jump, every guy took a huge jump. (So) I never dreamed that.”

It’s also likely no one expected the Pirates to jump out to a 15-0 start Thursday. But that wasn’t enough to count out Erie-Mason and particularly junior guard Joe Liedel.

The Eagles pulled all the way back to within a point at 23-22 with 2:20 to go in the first half as Liedel – who averaged 28.6 points per game this season – scored 14 of his game-high 31 during the comeback.

Another Liedel basket with 1:27 to play in the third quarter kept Erie-Mason only three points behind.  But Smith pushed the margin back to nine with the first basket of the fourth, and the Eagles made only 3-of-16 shots from the floor over the final period as P-W pulled away.

“A lot of times, those (big early leads) come back to bite you,” Pohl said. “I’ve seen it happen too many times; a team lets up little bit, starts to feel the pressure as the other team is coming back. … The guys persevered. They battled through this all year long, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way we ended up finishing.”

Junior forward Aaron Bearss finished with a team-high 16 points, nine rebounds and four blocks for P-W, and Smith had 14 points and nine rebounds. Senior forward Nathan Wirth grabbed nine rebounds as well as the Pirates won the boards 46-32.

Liedel had six rebounds and three assists to go with his 31 points, and senior center John Sweeney grabbed eight rebounds for Erie-Mason.

“My biggest thing is to keep getting better this offseason. I just want to keep taking everything we’ve done this year and be back here next year and be even better,” Liedel said.

Erie-Mason (23-3) made it to this final week by winning its first Regional title since 1973, one of many achievements as eighth-year coach Kevin Skaggs has built the program.

Two of his first three teams finished with sub-.500 records, but his last five all have been winners, with this one also earning the first league title of his tenure.

P-W was model of consistency that Skaggs, who came from the college ranks, used as something of a “benchmark” for the Erie-Mason program.

“When we got to Mason eight years ago, they had had only eight or nine winning seasons in 50 years of basketball,” Skaggs said. “I think this has been a continuous building project to get to this stage. It was not unexpected to get here. But what you can’t reproduce is the experiences that Pewamo has enjoyed. Those kids have watched the guys, when they were in elementary school, perform on this stage or at least get to the Regional Finals.

“Our guys are still in the process of they’ve created history. … They are creating the same things that the early teams that Luke coached during the late 90s and early 2000s (created).”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia’s Hunter Hengesbach (10) sets up the offense as Erie-Mason’s Joe Liedel defends. (Middle) Liedel gets a shot up over the Pirates’ Collin Trierweiler.

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.)