Pressure? No problem as Our Lady Advances

March 24, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – The bright lights have worn off for Waterford Our Lady’s seniors.

And that might have made all the difference over the final minutes of what could’ve been their final high school basketball game.

Andrew Kline and brothers Clay and Devin Senerius brought the Lakers to the Class D Semifinals a year ago for the first time since 1993, and they just missed a football championship losing by seven points in the Division 8 Final this fall.

So when the score of Thursday’s first Class D Semifinal sat tied for the seventh time with 5:49 to play, the Our Lady seniors weren’t phased by the building Breslin Center pressure.

The Lakers closed on a 15-3 run to finally break away from Wyoming Tri-unity Christian and earn their first MHSAA championship game appearance with a 64-53 victory.

“Playing on the big stage, it’s not as hard as it used to be,” said Devin Senerius, who led four Our Lady players with 17 points. “At the beginning of last year, at the Semifinals we were all nervous. And then at the state finals (for football), we were a little nervous. Now we all just wanted to win instead of lose.”

They’ve got a chance to win one more time, and for the first time in program history on the final day of the season, when they face Powers North Central at 10 a.m. in Saturday’s Class D Final. 

The Lakers (22-4) were ranked No. 3 at the end of the regular season, so this run was hardly a surprise. But they also lost the final two games before the District began, putting the senior leaders in a position to pull their team back on track.

Our Lady responded by winning four of seven tournament games by at least 10 points.

“First off, it’s their personality. They want to win, and that’s vital,” Our Lady coach Paul Robak said. “It doesn’t matter if it is basketball, football, whatever; they want to win. That’s the most important part of the culture, teaching that not only to others in their class but the younger classes.

“We took a step backward toward the end of the year, and we got a little sloppy. But to their credit, we went back to being more competitive on the practice floor. And it starts with these three guys.”

Still, the final score Thursday was not indicative of how close the game stayed until the final six minutes.

To that point, neither team built a lead of more than six points. From 2:25 to play in the second quarter until 1:17 remained, neither team got ahead by more than four. There were 14 lead changes, seven in the third quarter and five during the fourth.

There would be only one run – and it would belong to Our Lady.

Kline scored nine of his 15 points during the final go-ahead drive, while Tri-unity Christian made only 1 of 9 shots from the floor during the final six minutes.   

“Coach told us it’s crunch time,” Kline said. “We’ve got to buckle down. We knew we were the better team.”

Freshman Noah Robak added 12 points and Clay Senerius had 11 for Our Lady. Devin had 12 rebounds and Clay added 10 and six assists as the Lakers outrebounded the Defenders 37-15.

Senior guard Collin Rosendall led Tri-unity (20-6) with 17 points and four steals, and senior forward Javi Cuevas had 12 points and four assists.

Although the Defenders made a decent 44 percent of its shots from the floor, they connected on only 7 of 27 tries from 3-point range – struggling at what’s usually a strength.

“All year long we’ve done a good job of maintaining the bleeding on the boards,” Tri-unity coach Mark Keeler said. “Tonight we didn’t do a good job of that. They have good shooters and I think they knocked down key shots at the right time.

"They stayed in their zone, and I was happy they stayed in their zone because our 3-point shooting is normally good. But it failed us at the end.”

Click for the full box score.

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Our Lady’s Clay Senerius looks for an opening while Tri-unity’s Javi Cuevas defends. (Middle) The Defenders’ Collin Rosendall works to get past a Lakers player during the Class D Semifinal.

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.)