River Rouge Takes Title Dream Into Final

March 15, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – At River Rouge, 14 MHSAA championship banners tell of one of the most storied programs in Michigan high school boys basketball history.

They don’t hang banners there for making the Semifinals or finishing runner-up.

That’s been on the minds of Panthers players all season after falling in the Semifinals the last two – and it was on their minds again as Friday’s Division 2 Semifinal against unbeaten Harper Woods Chandler Park went into overtime.

River Rouge saw a lead as large as 10 fade away during regulation, and then barely earned overtime on a last-second 3-pointer. But on the 20th anniversary of their last championship, the Panthers will get the opportunity to play for possibly the next after hanging on for a 72-66 victory at the Breslin Center.

“We need to win. I need to do whatever it takes to win the state championship. That’s what was going through my mind the whole time,” said River Rouge sophomore Legend Geeter of the game’s final stretch.

“I’ve been (to Breslin) once and lost in the Semifinals, and it was not a great feeling. In my mind, in order for this program to keep being great, we’ve got to win another state championship and put another banner up.”

River Rouge (23-2) will take on Hudsonville Unity Christian in Saturday’s 6:45 p.m. Final, in a rematch of the 1963 Class B championship game won by the Panthers 59-49.

Coach LaMonta Stone, who led the 1999 team, returned in November after two seasons away for his third tenure running the program and immediately told his players this season would be “state championship or bust” – but also that his expectation was that they would win title 15.

River Rouge has the most championships in the MHSAA’s 94-year history, but none during the 2000s, and the Panthers couldn’t bear the thought of another opportunity slipping away.

The double-digit lead – 33-23 just less than a minute into the second half – did slip away gradually over the third and fourth quarters. Senior Josh Diggs gave Chandler Park a 58-56 lead with a 3-pointer with 49 seconds to go in regulation, and two free throws by senior Andre Bradford pushed the advantage to three with 13 seconds left. But senior Nigel Colvin saved River Rouge’s championship hopes, taking a pass down the baseline on the ensuing possession, moving two steps to his right and draining a 3-pointer with three seconds left on the clock.

“Nigel when I came into this team was just a spot-up shooter,” Stone said. “But he’s the hardest-working kid on the team. Every day before practice, after practice, he’s working on his 1-2 dribble pull-up. He doesn’t want to be known as just a 3-point shooter.

“So when I saw that shot, and he had to get it off, I’m just thinking back to when he’s in the gym after practice, before practice, working on those type of shots where he has to take one or two dribbles and shoot the ball. Two or three months (ago), he couldn’t have made that play – because he was just a spot-up shooter.”

Colvin hit another 3-pointer to open the overtime scoring, and Chandler Park senior forward Tyland Tate answered to tie things back up. But a Geeter basket with 1:50 to play gave the Panthers the lead back for good, as they finished on a 7-3 run.

The loss was the first and only this season for Chandler Park (21-1), which won its first Regional title last week on the way to this first trip to the Semifinals.

“You saw the support we had. A lot of people came out,” Chandler Park coach James Scott said. “Small charter school, on the end of the east side, Harper Woods area. So I thought it was big to show that we have talent, we’ve got some players and it’s a program on the rise. From making this type of run, every year, moving forward.”  

Bradford had 14 points and three steals, and senior guard Derrick Bryant Jr. had team highs of 15 points and six assists for Chandler Park.

Colvin finished with 20 points to lead River Rouge, making 8-of-10 shots from the floor including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Geeter added 17 points and six rebounds and senior Donavan Freeman scored 12. Senior Bralin Toney had seven assists.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) River Rouge players embrace senior Nigel Colvin after his game-tying 3-pointer during the final seconds of regulation Friday. (Middle) Donavan Freeman (1) gets a shot up just out of the reach of Chandler Park’s Tyland Tate.

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.)