Promising Ypsilanti Aiming for Historic Finish

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

January 7, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

YPSILANTI – It was 30 minutes after Ypsilanti Community finished its victory over Flint Hamady on Tuesday, and 7-year-old Jaylon Allen was running around the court like any other ordinary 7-year-old.

As Ypsilanti basketball coach Steve Brooks watched him on the court, he spoke glowingly of the promise the youngster had in basketball. 

“Mark this down, he can run my offense right now, and he’s 7,” Brooks said.

Eleven years ago, Brooks was in the same position, watching a young player with a ton of hope. That player was Corey Allen, older brother of Jaylon and star of Ypsilanti’s unbeaten team that has advanced to the Class A Quarterfinals two of the past three years.

“Corey has been around like that,” Brooks said, comparing the brothers. “At that time, his dad was our middle school coach, so he would go to the middle school practices.

“Corey has been our leading scorer since he hit campus. He started as a freshman, and we had guys like Jaylen Johnson and Janeau Joubert, and he led us in scoring. His first three games were 17, 27 and 25 as a 14-year-old.” 

Mutual respect and admiration

The bond between Brooks and Allen has been a special one. Although Brooks is fond of all of his players, he admits that it is not unlike the relationship shared by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his star player Mateen Cleaves during Cleaves’ successful career that included an NCAA championship nearly two decades ago. 

“He really is my Mateen Cleaves,” Brooks said, “but don’t get me wrong. We go at it. I’m a disciplinarian, and as they get older, they want to do the social things. We had a heart-to-heart last Sunday. He’s a Mr. Basketball candidate, and I needed him to step it up.

“He had kind of deferred to the other guys because he already has a scholarship, and he wants some of the other guys to get seen. I was like, ‘Corey, those other guys depend on you,’ and he’s back to the old Corey.” 

Allen showed it Tuesday night against Flint Hamady. After Ypsilanti trailed by one at halftime, Allen broke a tie game in the third quarter with a long 3-pointer, then stole the ball and drove coast-to-coast for a layup and a quick five-point lead. The Grizzlies (5-0) never trailed after that.

“He’s been getting big baskets since I’ve known him,” Brooks said. “He had 45- and 50-point games in middle school, and he has led us in steals, so he’s just not a shooter.” 

Allen, a 6-foot-3 guard, has committed to play at the University of Detroit Mercy, and although he admits that he is looking forward to playing in college, he is in no hurry for the high school portion of his career to end.

“Detroit Mercy was like a family when I went on my visit,” Allen said. “They took me in like I was a part of the team. The coach kept it real, and I really liked that, and I liked the players. I played against some of them in AAU circuit, so I know them well.

“But ever since I was in the eighth grade, I’ve wanted to win the state championship for Coach Brooks. All through high school, we’ve been making runs and coming up short. Now this is my senior year, and I’m pushing to make that happen.” 

Allen speaks of Brooks much like Brooks speaks of him.

“Coach is a tough guy,” he said. “He wants the best out of all of us, and he pushes us the hardest. That’s why we love him. I love him to death. He’s a father figure to me.” 

And vice versa.

“A lot of times he gets the brunt of a lot of stuff because he’s like a son to me,” Brooks said. “The expectations are really high, and the standards are really high for him. He’s a humble kid, and I’m really going to miss him after he leaves.” 

Task at hand

Ypsilanti has never won an MHSAA championship in basketball. The team did make it to the Class A Finals in both 1968 and 1969 but lost both times. There was another great run during the late 1970s when the Phoenix won three consecutive Class A Regional titles before losing in the Quarterfinals. 

After the 2012-13 school year, Ypsilanti and Willow Run merged to form Ypsilanti Community High School, and the Phoenix became the Grizzlies. That was Allen’s first year in high school and the start of the most recent run of success.

Allen is not only a leader on the court; he is a leader off the court as well. It was something he picked up on as a freshman.

“At first, I wasn’t the type to seek out to be a leader,” he said. “We had a lot of leaders when I was in ninth grade. I was very quiet and took the teaching from them and worked on everything all through my high school career.”

While Allen isn’t a one-man team, he is the one everyone looks up to.

“The kids love him,” Brooks said. “We go as he goes, and I try to explain that to him. Whether he wants it or not, the other guys all look up to him all the way down to the seventh grade. All the kids know who he is, and they respect him.”

Junior guard De’Money Gentry said Allen’s leadership skills are felt both on and off the court.

“He pushes us and makes us do our best all the time,” Gentry said. “If we’re messing up, he just tells us to keep our heads up and keep doing what we need to do.”

Allen is surrounded by a talented team that made it to the Class A Quarterfinals a year ago, losing to eventual champion Detroit Western International. The Grizzlies lost just two players off that team and have even more on the way as injuries have been a problem at the start of the season.

Marquis Smith, star quarterback who is being recruited by such schools as Iowa State, Syracuse and Cincinnati for football, did not play all last season because of a dislocated shoulder but is expected back soon.

“He really is like the spirit of the team,” Brooks said of Smith. “He brings a positive attitude and confidence, and when I’m down, he’s the kind of guy to come into the office and cheer me up.”

Smith attended Willow Run prior to the merger and is excited to be part of such a successful program.

“I like to be part of a positive program,” he said. “I can’t explain how it feels to be winning. It’s the way we click together like a brotherhood. We’re on the same page with each other, and we know what’s happening and what we are capable of doing on the court.”

Junior guard Jamezell Davis has given the team a scoring spark early in the season and should take some of the heat off Allen, and there is plenty of depth waiting to get healthy and eligible.

Starting forward Jalen Maxwell is trying to come back after a concussion, and center Josh Perkins is battling a back injury. Guard Marlin Talley, son of former Mr. Basketball Award winner and University of Michigan player Michael Talley, missed the game Tuesday with an illness.

And then there is guard RayJon Williams-Jackson, a starter from last year who is on crutches after suffering a knee ligament injury in football.

“He does all the tough stuff, so we miss him,” Brooks said. “He does all the dirty work.”

Brooks also anticipates a big addition in a few weeks when 6-foot-5 forward Michael Bruce becomes eligible. Bruce originally attended Willow Run but chose to move on to Belleville after the closure instead of coming to Ypsilanti Community. He will be eligible in two weeks.

“He’s going to make us a different team,” Brooks said. “We will be a real good team. We’ll be a more confident team because he’s real skilled.”

Best kind of wins

Brooks wants to win as much as anybody, but he sees the big picture. The players understand that, too.

“He teaches us how to be better young men off the court,” Allen said.

Brooks calls it “educational athletics.”

“They are great kids; we don’t have any issues,” he said. “They are always well-mannered, they don’t get technical fouls, they don’t talk back to officials or things like that, and I’m really proud of them in that regard.

“It is educational athletics on this level, and that is what some people kind of lose sight of. Of course you want to win, but you want to teach them lessons along the way.”

Brooks, who took over at Ypsilanti in 2003, is relishing the run the Grizzlies are having, and he says the future looks bright – even before the arrival of the 7-year-old prodigy whom Brooks says can run his offense right now.

But he’s not looking that far in advance.

“By then,” Brooks said, “I’ll probably be eating popcorn and be at the point where I can just come out and watch the games.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ypsilanti Community’s Corey Allen (5) goes to the basket during Tuesday’s win over Flint Hamady. (Middle) Grizzlies coach Steve Brooks huddles with his team during a break. (Below) Jamezell Davis (3) pushes the ball upcourt during a fastbreak Tuesday. (Photos by Betsy Howell.)

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.)