'Petoskey Brand' Shines On Under Past Star

December 20, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

PETOSKEY — Dennis Starkey was the face of Petoskey basketball for 32 years.

Now the Northmen have turned to a new, but familiar face to lead them into the next era on the hardwood after Starkey announced his retirement following the 2017-18 boys basketball season.

John Flynn, who suited up for Petoskey from 1996-98 and is among the school’s all-time greats, has taken over for his former coach after spending the last two seasons as a varsity assistant on Starkey’s staff.

“It’s kind of been surreal,” said Flynn. “I guess I never really thought about being Petoskey’s next coach just because when you think of Petoskey basketball you think of Dennis Starkey as the varsity coach. It wouldn’t exist without him. It never really crossed my mind that he would ever step down. He’s been there for so long. That’s all I’ve ever really known.”

Starkey felt like it was time to step down after last season, however. Not because the Northmen weren’t having success. In fact, last season’s 19-3 record was the 14th consecutive season that Petoskey had finished above .500. Starkey, who had already retired from teaching three years ago, was simply ready to enjoy other aspects of life that had been on the backburner during a 36-year coaching run during which he won 553 games — with 515 of those coming at Petoskey — and earned spots in both the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan and Michigan High School Coaches Association halls of fame. Starkey won 17 Districts and 14 conference championships while turning Petoskey into a model of consistent excellence on the basketball court.

Flynn was one of nine candidates who applied to replace Starkey. He was familiar with the program and seemed to be a natural fit, given the amount of time he had been a part of it. After going through the process with all the candidates, the school felt the same way.

“There were definitely some quality guys (who applied),” said Petoskey athletic director Dave Smith. “We were looking for someone who was going to be around for a while, and that was John.

“It’s nice to have one of Dennis’ former players. (John) certainly learned from one of the best.”

Starkey was pleased when Flynn was announced as his successor last spring and sees Flynn as having a bright future as a head coach.

“I thought it was a great choice,” said Starkey. “He’s a hard worker and he’s got a great personality. John’s always been a student of the game, and I think it’s been a real good fit. Nobody is going to outwork him, and that’s the No. 1 (trait), and he has good relationships with the kids. The combination of his work ethic and his ability to relate to the kids will make him special.”

Coaching basketball comes naturally to Flynn. His dad Joe was a longtime coach at Harbor Springs and had great success there. John Flynn started his high school career as a freshman at Harbor Springs but transferred to Petoskey as a sophomore and — along with backcourt mate Trevor Huffman — helped the Northmen win three straight Class B Regional titles, including getting to the MHSAA Semifinals twice. In 1997 Petoskey lost to Detroit Country Day, which went on to win its third straight Class B championship. In 1998 it was Marshall that ousted the Northmen.

“John was a very intense player — loved a challenge,” said Starkey. “Also really enjoyed the game. John just loves the game.”

That passion took Flynn all the way to Grand Valley State, where he became the all-time leading scorer with 2,220 points as well as the all-time leading scorer in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with 1,531 points. Now it’s shining through on the sidelines during games or with a whistle during practice.

“John understands how important basketball is to this community,” said Smith. “He has quite the drive and passion for the sport. That’s just something I don’t think many coaches can match. It’s not just necessarily about winning (to him), but certainly he holds our guys very accountable for doing things the right way. There’s no letdown with any of that. He just demands that they’re going to work hard and do their best.”

Flynn is a new voice on the bench, and he’s added a few wrinkles to Petoskey’s look, but the Northmen still have the basic tenets that were established under Starkey and remain the backbone of the program.

“We’re going to focus on the fundamentals, hold guys accountable, talk on defense, just be tough-nosed — the Petoskey brand,” said Flynn. “I got that from Coach Starkey, and that’s never going to change. We’re going to give 100 percent. We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to leave it on the floor, and if we lose some, we lose some. If we win some, we win some, but you can go home at night and go to sleep saying, ‘Hey, we laid it all on the line.’ I know Coach Starkey, that was true to him for more than 30 years and that doesn’t change.

“There might be some different stuff as far as Xs and Os that we do, but he and I both adapt with the talent we’re given each particular year. I’m just trying to give these kids a platform to give them the best chance to succeed. This year that style is a little bit different than what we’ve played in the past, but there’s still some of that core values and beliefs from a program perspective that’s never going to change.”

The results on the floor have so far been consistent amid the transition, too. Flynn’s squad started the season by winning four of the first five games, including a 57-52 win on the road over previously-unbeaten Alpena in the Northmen’s Big North Conference opener.

“The guys I have this year — they’re such good kids, and they work so hard,” said Flynn. “That right there keeps me fired up and motivated to do my best as a coach, because they’re receptive. Now they’re starting to see my method to my madness as far as what I’m saying works. They’re starting to see the fruits of their labor.”

Starkey has purposely tried to keep his distance to give his former player all the space he needs, even scheduling a trip to Florida to coincide with the start of the regular season. The two have spoken a number of times, however, as Flynn continues to glean information from his former coach and mentor.

“We have great conversations,” said Flynn. “It’s great to bounce ideas off of him. I hope he enjoys it as much as I do because he still has that coach mentality that’s been interwoven into his fabric for the last 36 years. I’m glad we’ve got such a great relationship. I respect him and his knowledge so much.”

Flynn may not have specifically set out to become Petoskey’s basketball coach, but the timing of the vacancy, his love for the game and the opportunity to carry on the rich Petoskey basketball tradition made for a perfect match.

“I just felt like there was a need and I had to fill that need because I know I could try to do as good of a job as Coach Starkey and carry on his legacy,” said Flynn. “This is the baton. Now it’s my turn to keep this going. Kind of like, ‘Coach, I got this.’”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Petoskey boys basketball first-year head coach John Flynn directs his players during a practice this season. (Middle) The Northmen celebrate one of many encouraging moments early this winter. (Photos courtesy of the Petoskey News-Review.)

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.)