Rice Comes Home to Whiteford Bench

January 22, 2016

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

John Rice thought he found the perfect match for his two passions in life – fishing and basketball. By day, he could spend hours fishing off the Florida coast. When the afternoon rolled around, he would hit the gymnasium to coach basketball.

“I would have been perfectly satisfied doing that this winter,” Rice said.

That is, until Rice’s seventh-grade granddaughter Emma called.

“It was last March and we were in Florida and she was back home in Ottawa Lake,” Rice recalls. “She calls me up and says, ‘Grandpa, my team has a tournament that we are playing in and I want you to come watch me. And, I want you to coach my team next year.’”

Rice hung up the phone and told his wife, Sandy, they were headed home.

“We packed our stuff and went home,” Rice said. “It was a couple of weeks earlier than we had planned, but we got home in time for her tournament.”

A couple weeks later, after he agreed to become the seventh-grade girls basketball coach at Whiteford for the 2015-16 season, Bobcat varsity boys coach Jim Ross resigned. Athletic Director Nate Gust – who played for Rice when he was coaching at Whiteford in the early 2000s, asked Rice if he was interested in the varsity job. He decided to take it and is back at the helm of the Bobcats this season – 13 after ending his 30-year coaching career at Whiteford.

“Coaching basketball is something I love to do and, health-wise, I think it keeps me young,” said Rice, who celebrated his 70th birthday last summer. “I still love the game. When Emma asked me to coach her team, I couldn’t say no.”

Rice also couldn’t say no to coaching the varsity boys and helping to return the team to prominence. Whiteford went an uncharacteristic 4-17 in 2014-15 but is off to a 6-4 start under Rice.

“It’s a challenge, but I love challenges,” Rice said. “I enjoyed my time at Whiteford before, and I’m enjoying it now.”

This is his second stint as the head coach of Whiteford, having coached the Bobcats from 1974 to 2003, when he amassed 400 wins and collected eight District and eight league championships.

“The big thing was just getting acclimated to the kids here,” said Rice during a break in practice recently. “Being away so long, I was not able to follow these kids as they progressed through junior high or junior varsity basketball. I had to get to know them, and they have to get to know me. They’ve responded well, but we are still getting to know one another.”

Rice grew up in Bladensburg, Ohio, where he was an honorable mention all-state guard in Ohio’s smallest division in 1961. He was a factory worker, then college student who got his first varsity coaching job in 1969 at Dansville (Ohio) High School. He spent two years there, moved on to Mount Vernon Bible College – known now as Mount Vernon Nazarene – before moving north into Michigan.

He made Whiteford his home – especially the gymnasium just off exit 3 of US-23. His Bobcats won their first District title in his third year and their first Tri-County Conference title in his seventh. By the early 1980s, Rice had a Class D powerhouse. His 1981-82 team went 21-2, and he was named the Class D Coach of the Year by The Associated Press. His Bobcats won five league titles and four District crowns alone during the 1980s. He’s also had a good run of coaching all-state players – no fewer than six Bobcats that he coached earned first or second-team all-state honors.

Rice coached the Bobcats through the 2002-03 season, which happened to be the best in school history. Whiteford won its first 23 games, finished 23-1 and ended the season ranked among the top Class C teams in the state. Soon after the season ended, Rice resigned with 410 wins at Whiteford.

“I just felt the time was right for me to step aside and let someone else coach,” Rice said. “It was time. I felt good about what I had accomplished, and I was leaving the program in good shape. It was a good time.”

Just because Rice wasn’t at Whiteford, however, didn’t mean the coaching bug left him. In the dozen seasons since, he’s coached 11 of them. That includes varsity stints at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, Flat Rock and Toledo Bowsher. He’s been the junior varsity head coach at Toledo Woodward, the JV coach at Sylvania Southview and a varsity assistant at Lake Worth Christian in Boynton Beach, Fla., about 45 minutes north of Fort Lauderdale on Florida’s east coast. The only time Rice didn’t coach was one season during which he had back surgery.

“I started the season as an assistant, but decided to focus on my health,” he said. “I went to a specialist and found I needed surgery. Every other year, I’ve coached in some capacity. I’ve coached with a lot of different guys and observed lots of different styles.”

His return to Whiteford has kept him busy. He is officially head coach of both Bobcats middle school girls teams and the varsity boys. Some days, he has practices from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. He also stops by the girls varsity practice when he can, which itself is nothing new. In addition to all of his years with the Bobcats boys program, he coached the Whiteford JV girls for 32 seasons and the varsity girls for three.

“I’ll practice four straight hours some days,” he said. “It’s a tough transition going from seventh-grade girls to varsity boys. You have to adjust your voice.”

In the first half of the season, the Bobcats have beaten arch-rival Summerfield in overtime, beaten Blissfield and have already passed last season’s team win total despite starting the season with just three seniors and a host of underclassmen – including five sophomores – on the roster.

“One of my philosophies has always been to bring up the underclassmen and build the team that way,” Rice said. “It has worked out very well for my teams at Whiteford and at other schools. When the younger kids get experience, it usually pays off in the end.”

He also has continued his typical high-tempo offense with pressing and trapping on defense.

“That’s the type of basketball that I like to play,” he said. “I haven’t changed my philosophy much. You have to adapt from year-to-year, depending on the kids you have, but the philosophy stays the same.”

The middle school girls start games later this month.

“It’s keeping my young again,” he said.

Rice’s return has been welcomed by the community, especially several of his former players who have stopped by the old gym to catch five minutes of the practices they remember so well or to just say hi before a game. A lot of former players have left comments on Facebook, too. Among the players on his roster now are Cody and Jesse Kiefer. During his first stint at Whiteford, Rice coached both the Kiefers’ parents.

“I’m having fun,” Rice said. “I’m comfortable here. I feel back at home. This has energized me.”

Rice by the numbers





Danville (Ohio)




Ottawa Lake Whiteford




Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard




Flat Rock




Toledo Bowsher (Ohio)




Ottawa Lake Whiteford









*Through Jan. 21, 2016

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.)