Promise Kept, Dream Continues for Morenci

March 26, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Every summer, Morenci boys basketball coach Jim Bauer comes up with a catchy, aspiration-filled slogan for his kids basketball camp T-shirts.

Pathway to Breslin. Small Town, Big Time. “Breslin is on every shirt,” Bauer said, “but deep down, you’re thinking, am I ever going to get there?” 

Three years ago, a freshman named Austin Sandusky made a promise he and his teammates kept Thursday. And now they’ve got an opportunity to carry it one step farther.

Morenci will play for its first MHSAA championship after handing Waterford Our Lady its only loss this season, 53-52, in a Class D Semifinal on Michigan State University's home floor.  

“We started in fourth grade, and it seemed every tournament we’d be in the championship game,” Sandusky said. “Every year our coaches told us it wasn’t for this championship game, it’s for when we’re juniors and seniors on the varsity level trying to get to the (MHSAA) championship game. We knew they wouldn’t say that unless they truly believed it.”

Morenci (25-2), unranked when this tournament began, will face top-ranked Powers North Central in the 10 a.m. Final on Saturday. 

Bauer has coached four 20-win teams over two tenures measuring a decade at Morenci, with this year’s his second straight to reach that milestone win total. But he’s also had three teams finish with sub-.500 records, including only two seasons ago.

No Morenci player measures taller than 6-foot-3, and senior guard Alex Thomas said he and his teammates always knew they’d be a little smaller than their opponents. But the Bulldogs returned four starters after falling to eventual MHSAA runner-up Adrian Lenawee Christian in last season's District Final. Two weeks ago, Morenci won its first Regional title since 1954, and the Semifinal was the first in the program’s history.

But the run nearly ended there – even though the Bulldogs led Thursday for all but 3 minutes and 55 seconds.

They were ahead from the middle of the first quarter until Our Lady senior Nick Robak hit a go-ahead jumper to make the score 38-37 with 7:08 to play. 

Morenci took the lead back and pushed it to six points three times, including with 14 seconds remaining. But Robak hit another big shot – a 3 pointer to cut the deficit in half with eight seconds left – and after a steal by junior teammate Adam Kline was fouled on another 3-point attempt with less than a second to go in regulation.

Robak was faced with making all three free throws to tie the score. An 86-percent free-throw shooter, he connected on the first two – but missed the third. 

“Layups and free throws, they matter. And they probably came back to bite us in the end,” said Our Lady coach Paul Robak, also Nick’s uncle. “Thirty-two minutes were played, and we lost our opportunity a long time before (the final second). We would’ve never gotten here without the efforts of Nick. … There are lessons in everything, and although we came here to win and not get a lesson, I hope we can find that lesson down the road.”

Robak scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to go with four assists. Kline added 12 points and five assists and junior forward Clay Senerius had nine points, 11 rebounds and four assists. But the team made only 6 of 14 free throw attempts and missed some shots from the lane that usually have fallen. 

The Semifinal was Our Lady's first since 1993. The Lakers finished with a school record for wins in ending 25-1.

Thomas had 19 points and seven rebounds as the only player in double figures for Morenci. Sandusky added seven points, five rebounds and five assists as all five Bulldogs starters scored at least six points, and eight players saw at least nine minutes of action. 

They didn’t play an opponent this season that received votes in the final Associated Press rankings. But they did avenge both of their losses and had won all of their tournament games by at least 12 points before Thursday’s nail-biter made what might’ve seemed like an unrealistic Sandusky dream continue to come true.

“You never discourage a kid from having a dream,” Bauer said. “You go along with it and hope for it. 

“That’s what I wanted too.” 

Click for the full box score and video from the postgame press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Morenci players celebrate their first MHSAA championship game berth. (Middle) Waterford Our Lady’s Nick Robak gets past a defender for an open look Thursday.  

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.)