Ribel's Return Sets Up TC Central for 2nd-Half Rebound, Postseason Push

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

January 19, 2024

Best of three.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThat’s the perspective Traverse City Central’s varsity basketball team has as the Trojans travel to play undefeated Cadillac tonight. And really, they have the same vision for most of their Big North Conference opponents as they reach midseason.

Central has hopes of getting in two or more wins against those rivals with a third meeting likely coming during the postseason. Central also is hopeful of getting to play those conference and postseason games with their leading scorer Anthony Ribel healthy and in the line-up.

Ribel missed the first seven games this season with a foot injury, including an opening day 68-33 route by the Vikings on the Trojans’ court. He will be in the line-up this time – and the Trojans are a much more confident and experienced team than they were in the first meeting.

Cadillac is entering tonight 10-0 overall and 5-0 in the Big North. Central, 2-8 but coming off its highest-scoring game in 15 years (a 94-50 victory over Alpena), owns a 2-3 league record. But the Trojans haven’t given up winning the conference title just yet. Ribel’s injury occurred at practice just three days before the season opener, and since returning he has averaged 30 points per game. 

“Cadillac beat us pretty bad,” second-year coach Ben Fischer acknowledged. “The guys are very motivated to show them how we play Trojans basketball.

“Anthony is a big addition – it goes without saying,” he continued. “We’re a much different team offensively and defensively than we were before.”

Last year, the 6-foot-3 Ribel broke the junior-season scoring record at Traverse City Central previously owned by Dan Majerle, who played 14 seasons in the NBA, made three all-star teams and helped the U.S. Olympic team to a bronze medal in 1988. Ribel scored more than 600 points and also eclipsed the 1,000-point career mark during his junior campaign.

Despite missing the first third of this season, Ribel has a shot at Majerle’s career scoring record of 1,388 points. He started this winter with 1,133 career points after joining the varsity as a freshman.

Ribel elevates for a jumper.Ribel recalled how he struggled through Cadillac’s lopsided win in the season opener while sitting the bench. Cadillac dominated the inside game, and Ribel is confident that will change tonight.

“When you lose at home by that much, it is embarrassing,” Ribel noted. “We have a lot of extra motivation.  

“We’re less worried about what they can get from outside — we’re more worried about what they can do inside,” he continued. “We just have to take over the paint the best we can.”

Ribel led the way with 25 points in the Alpena win. The Trojans also got contributions from Owen Ribel (20 points), Brendan Slack (12 points), EJ Maitland (10 points), Jaden Clark (10 points, five assists), Jack Potgieter (nine points, eight rebounds) and Ethan Rademacher (five assists).

“We’re starting to find our stride.” Fischer pointed out. “Guys are getting a lot more dialed into their roles. We have relied on a lot of guys who didn’t have much experience coming into the season. Now they know they can go out there and compete having played some really good teams already.”

Slack is averaging 11.2 points per game and Maitland is contributing 10.1. Potgieter and Anthony Ribel are collecting six rebounds per game. Maitland and Potgieter kick in more than two assists.

Owen Ribel, only a sophomore, is also making a big mark for the Trojans. He’s thrown down a few dunks and had the 20-point effort against Alpena.

Owen and Anthony are the sons of past Trojans standout Ryan Ribel, a key team member of the last Central team to win a Regional, back in 1996. As a junior that year, Ryan Ribel averaged 17.5 points per game.

This season’s potential District opener opponents include the Big North’s Gaylord, Alpena, Petoskey and Traverse City West. Marquette also is in the District. The Trojans have wins over Alpena and Petoskey and lost to Gaylord and West the first time around. Anthony Ribel’s second game back was against West. He scored 19 points, but the Titans prevailed 64-59 with some strong free throw shooting down the stretch. Cadillac is a possible Regional opponent.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the Trojans will look forward to every rematch that comes their way as they hope to win all of their best-of-three series – of even sweep them.

“We’ve got a really good group of young men who are hungry to compete,” Fischer said. “Our biggest goal is to win Districts and hopefully Regionals. We’re getting a little bit better every single day.”

Anthony Ribel agreed.

“My teammates were put in some uncomfortable positions to start the year,” he said.  “I think it will benefit us for the rest of the season. 

“Getting the chemistry back with each other is going to be important,” he continued. “We need to string some big games together with all of us healthy, and make a good run.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Traverse City Central’s Anthony Ribel, left, gets to the basket during his first game this season, against Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern on Jan. 2. (Middle) Ribel elevates for a jumper. (Photos by Rick Sack, TC Rick Photo.)

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.)