Perez Poised to Lead Hudsonville Charge

December 18, 2019

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

HUDSONVILLE – Max Perez remembers the despair he and his Hudsonville teammates felt after a disheartening 61-60 loss to East Kentwood in last season’s Division 1 Regional Final.

The Eagles stormed back from a 19-point second-half deficit only to watch their season end in the closing seconds.

Hudsonville hopes to use the defeat as a rallying cry for this season.

“The motivation we have going into the season is really high. … We were that close to going to the Quarterfinals, which only three other Hudsonville teams had done,” Perez said. “We beat them twice (in the regular season) and they got us when it counted, so that really stung us.”

Although their postseason run ended prematurely, the Eagles still won 22 games and captured the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red championship. 

Perez, a 5-foot-10 point guard, played a major role in the team’s success despite missing nine games with a broken thumb.

That was the first time the four-year varsity player had suffered an injury that forced him to sit out for an extended period of time. 

“It was really tough, then I got the news that I would be out six weeks. But I just knew that I couldn’t get down on myself, and I would be back,” Perez said. “I just had to pick up my teammates every day in practice and encourage them and stay positive.”

Perez will be the floor general for an Eagles’ squad that has eight seniors, including 6-foot-7 Justin DeGraaf, who moved back to Hudsonville after five years living in Indiana.

Through an intense passion for the game and a strong work ethic, Perez has made giant strides since beginning his high school career as an undersized freshman on the varsity.

“I think my game has improved a lot,” Perez said. “I’m stronger now, I’m bigger now and I’ve really worked on my game. I’ve implemented more of a drive game because when I was a freshman I was small and just stayed on the 3-point line and shot jumpers.

“As the years have gone on, I’ve become more mature and added more of an arsenal to my game while also improving my defense, which was important to me.”

Hudsonville coach Eric Elliott also has seen Perez’ progression, and it’s been even more evident entering this season.

“I’ve seen a ton of growth in all aspects and every year he has grown up as a player and matured, but I think the largest leap has been from last year to this year and it’s been significant,” Elliott said. “He’s stronger and more mature, and he’s more of a calming force than in the past. He seems more at ease and relaxed.”

Perez, who averaged 15 points per game last season, has had a basketball in his hands since before he could walk.

Through the years, he’s attended numerous camps, played on successful travel teams and spent countless hours in the gym fine-tuning his pure jump shot.

“He’s more than a classic gym rat; he’s non-stop in the gym and on the gun, and there’s no doubt that it has made him a very good basketball player and an incredible shooter,” Elliott said. “He’s an extremely confident kid and a confident shooter, and that comes from repetition and time spent in the gym.”

Perez’ dedication recently helped him fulfill a goal he’s had since middle school.

Last week he committed to Indiana Tech, an NAIA school, on a full-ride scholarship.

“They showed me love since day one, and they were my first offer,” Perez said. “I love the coaching staff, their facilities and campus and I love the guys. I think it will be a great help for the season just to know that I’m playing for my team and not doing anything for myself since I’ve already committed to college.

“I can focus on the season and winning, and I think we can go a long way with this talented senior group.”

Elliott is thrilled for Perez to get the opportunity to play at the next level.

“I’m incredibly happy for Max,” he said. “Anytime you see a kid that puts in the time and the energy and the passion that he has, and then to see him get rewarded, as a coach, it’s awesome to see. I’m excited that he could make a decision now so he can totally relax and can just play now. He has that behind him.”

Perez scored 21 points in a season-opening win over Godwin Heights. It was a solid start for a team that has lofty aspirations.

“Our goal is to win the conference and win Districts, but we know how good teams are around us and the O-K Red is brutal,” Elliott said. “We have high expectations, and we feel like we can beat anybody on any given night. However, we also feel like we can be beaten by anybody. We have some things to work on, but we are very excited.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at[email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTO: Point guard Max Perez directs the offense for Hudsonville. (Photo courtesy of the Hudsonville athletic department.)

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.)