Pino's Project to Teach Lessons of 'TEAM'

February 16, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

NORTHPORT – Dan Stowe wondered how Northport might celebrate the 30th anniversary of its MHSAA Class D boys basketball championship.

Enter Ethan Pino.

The 17-year-old, a forward on the current Wildcats team coached by Stowe, has organized an event for Saturday night that will bring players and coaches off that 1988 squad together for a panel discussion on various topics, including the benefits of playing team sports.

It’s all part of Pino’s senior project.

“People still talk about (the state title) a lot,” said Pino. “It’s one of the great things that’s happened in Northport. It’s such a small town.”

Pino, who will be an interviewer, said he’s eager to hear team members talk about life lessons learned that season and what it took to win an MHSAA Finals crown.

“This was a great experience for them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “I want (to hear) about the dedication they put into it and the legacy they left behind.”

Audience members will be able to ask questions, too.

The team has had two reunions since claiming the title, but the last was 20 years ago, said Gordie Wick, the coach of the 1988 squad.

“I was wondering who was going to (organize) a reunion or celebration,” said Stowe, who hit the game-winning shot to beat Beal City 80-78 in the Final. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen.

“When Ethan suggested he wanted a role as part of his Northport senior project it made a lot of sense. Josh (athletic director Josh Vander Meulen) is his mentor (on the project). I think this is a good opportunity to have those people that were involved in that experience congregate (at the school) for some pointed, and some fun, questions. It will give us a chance to reminisce. Everybody wins.”

Northport seniors are required to complete a project to graduate. There are 17 seniors in this year’s class. Their project topics range from females in the military to drug awareness to the farm-to-table food movement. Pino, who has played five years of varsity soccer and four of varsity basketball, went the sports route. He said playing sports has taught him valuable lessons about teamwork and commitment. Plus, he added, it’s improved his communication, leadership and social skills. And it’s opened the door to lasting friendships, too.

Pino, who hopes to attend Oakland University, was selected as the school’s student athlete of the fall.

“He wanted to focus on team sports because it’s through his experiences with his teammates that he’s been able to grow,” said Vander Meulen. “Sports are a big part of his life. Ethan’s not a boisterous student. He’s celebrated because he’s a quiet competitor who is dependable and trustworthy. He’s not looking to stand out. He’s not looking for a gold star. When you work with him, you know he’s going to do a good job and you’re going to have fun. You know he won’t let you down.”

The 30-year reunion comes at a rather poignant time. Tonight’s game with Burt Lake Northern Michigan Christian Academy could be the last home game for players wearing Northport uniforms. Because of declining numbers – the high school enrollment is in the 40s - Northport may have to go to a co-op, like it does with neighboring Suttons Bay in soccer and girls basketball. There are currently nine players on varsity, but only three return next season. There is no JV team.

The Wildcats, 10-4, recently clinched the Cherryland Conference title. The team had won eight games in a row before a loss to Traverse City Christian on Wednesday. That was Northport’s first league loss in two years.

“It’s been rewarding to see how far we’ve come since the beginning of the season,” said Pino.

It’s been a hectic winter for Pino – and Vander Meulen, who has helped him pull his senior project together. There are three components to all projects – a research paper, a formal product and a presentation.

“This (projects) gives all of our seniors a chance to dive into something deeper than maybe they’re allowed to in the classroom,” said Vander Meulen.

Saturday’s event will be Pino’s product, although Vander Meulen said he believes “the planning is the product and the event is the cherry.”

“Certainly we want to pull it off and have it be a great night for everyone involved,” he said. “Planning is so important, and hopefully that’s what Ethan takes away from this. It’s the planning that makes it happen – and good planning takes work.”

Pino and Vander Meulen decided in October that the 30th anniversary of Northport’s title would be a perfect tie-in to the project.

“The 1988 team is the vehicle to drive the message of the benefits (of playing team sports) forward,” said Vander Meulen.

“In our community, they are the team, and that’s capital TEAM. And that’s what this narrative is about. If you ask anybody in our community, who lived here (at that time), they all have a story. To the modern athletes, though, they are mostly unknown so this will be a cool opportunity for our student athletes to see those former players and hear their stories from 30 years ago.”

Several of those players were also part of the school’s Class D championship soccer team in 1986. But it’s that magical March basketball run in 1988 that captured the attention of northern Michigan.

“Football and boys basketball, at least in northern Michigan, drive the dialogue,” said Vander Meulen. “All sports are important and valuable, but public interest in those two can capture a community, ignite not only a town but a region. When I watch highlights of the Buckley boys on the news you can’t see a place to sit. That’s the same energy that was once there with the Northport boys.”

After completing his research paper in late November, Pino reached out to former players and coaches about the idea and to see if they would be able to make it. Seven players and two coaches are planning to attend.

“Some are living out of town and are busy and cannot come,” said Pino. “Some we could not get ahold of. Overall, though, they were pretty excited to hear about it.”

Two dates were considered before Saturday was agreed upon.

When asked how much time he’s put in on the project, Pino paused.

“Mmm …, hours wise, I’m not exactly sure,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

Stowe appreciates the fact Pino and Vander Meulen went the extra mile.

“I think they’ve gone way over the top on this one,” he said.

And they’re still making sure everything is set for Saturday.

“Since we got back from (Christmas) break it’s been logistics, logistics, logistics,” said Vander Meulen. “We don’t want to invite people to Northport and have it be a sloppy presentation. We meet every day. In fact, I don’t know how he feels when he sees me in the hallway now because I always have a new idea. It’s ‘Ethan, we should be tackling this’ or ‘Ethan, did you take care of that?’ We hope we’re not leaving any stone unturned. We feel pretty good, but we’re still turning stones to see if there’s not more we can do.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Northport’s Ethan Pino squares up for a shot during a game this season. (Middle) The 1988 Northport boys basketball team remains legendary in its community. (Below) Pino winds up during this past soccer season. (Top and below photos by Dan Duffiney.)

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.)