Pirates sail into first Final since 1993

March 20, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Nick Spitzley, no doubt like the other eight seniors on Pewamo-Westphalia’s basketball team, dreamed growing up of playing for an MHSAA championship.

He needed to use his imagination, since the first and only time the Pirates did play for a Class C title was in 1993, a few years before he was born.

“Obviously we always came out on top,” Spitzley recalled. “Making a lot of shots, and I was always getting pumped up with my team.

“Since I was little, it’s always been a dream, and it’s come true. We’ve been playing together since fifth grade, maybe before that.”

P-W’s seniors are halfway through the final weekend of their high school careers and more than halfway to making that dream come true.

The No. 10-ranked Pirates advanced to Saturday’s Class C final by defeating No. 9 Muskegon Heights 54-44 in the first Semifinal on Thursday at the Breslin Center. P-W’s nine seniors will get to play in the final game of the season for the first time in school history, at 4:30 p.m. against No. 2 Detroit Consortium.

Pewamo-Westphalia will become the second straight team from the Central Michigan Athletic Conference to play for the Class C title, and third in eight seasons. Laingsburg fell in last year’s Final by a point, 40-39, to Flint Beecher. Bath won the Class C title in 2007.

Also from the CMAC, Fulton was Class D runner-up in 2011 and Fowler finished the same in 2002.

The Pirates had to come back over the final minute to beat Beecher in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal, and made it two-for-two against some of the state’s most storied programs by then eliminating Heights, which played in its 22nd Semifinal and fourth over the last five seasons.

P-W has won 81 percent of its games under coach Luke Pohl during two tenures over a combined 17 seasons. But the Pirates haven't had the chance to add the championship game chapter to their story in more than two decades.

“Knowing we had to beat a team like Flint Beecher and Muskegon Heights, with the history behind those schools, in unbelievable,” Pohl said. “If you follow our league, you’ve seen how many times the league has been here the last 10 years. It’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em basketball in the wintertime, and we’ve got great coaches there – those kind of guys sharpen my skills as a coach. But you’ve gotta have players to win, and we’ve got really good players.”

Spitzley is a four-year starter, one of the top scorers in school history, and did his part Thursday with 22 points and eight rebounds.

But the Semifinal win was truly a full senior effort, as all six players who saw time were 12th graders and a pair added big plays to Spitzley’s game-high scoring surge.

The first came 1 minute, 14 seconds into the second half with the Pirates trailing by a point. Guard Evan Fedewa scored and was fouled on his way to the hoop, and hit the ensuing free throw to give the Pirates a 29-27 lead. They would never trail again.

But Muskegon Heights came close to taking back the lead. The Tigers (20-4) pulled within four with 4:20 to play when P-W center Lane Simon was fouled on a score and also made the following free throw to push the lead back to 46-39 and seemingly drain the last bit of momentum from Heights’ comeback run.

Simon added 17 points, 10 rebounds, and both Fedewa and Kyle Nurenberg grabbed nine rebounds for the Pirates.

Junior Antonio Jones led Muskegon Heights with 16 pints, and senior Eddrick Tornes added 12. Jones made what could be one of the shots of the tournament, a spinning pull-up jumper thrown up without a look at the basket. But overall, his team shot just 24 percent from the floor including 14 percent as P-W pulled away during the second half.

Still, the return run was an accomplishment coach Dalrecus Stewart made sure to note. The Tigers have been here plenty of times, but this one was a little different – the school closed after spring 2012 and re-opened that fall as a public school academy.

“I know (my players) are feeling hurt, but this was a little bit more than a basketball game for us with all of the things that have gone on in our city as well as our school district the last few years,” Stewart said. “The championship they won today was about bringing hope to despair. They are a shining bright spot and what they’ve done is beyond measure. They’re my champions.”

Click for a full box score and video from the press conference

PHOTOS: (Top) P-W’s Lane Simon (1) goes to the rim during Thursday’s Semifinal win over Muskegon Heights. (Middle) P-W's Nick Spitzley works to get past Muskegon Height's Eddrick Tornes.

HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Muskegon Heights’ Aaron Sydnor (3) wins the tip-up battle to score late in the first half against Pewamo-Westphalia. (2) Pewamo-Westphalia opened the second half with a 17-3 run. Lane Simon drives for two during that spurt.

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.)