Romulus Summit Academy Continuing Impressive Climb

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 17, 2021

As a co-founder of Romulus Summit Academy, Leann Hedke was intent on creating an atmosphere conducive to academic achievement.

Summit opened its doors in Flat Rock in 1996 for grades K-5, soon expanding to K-12 once the school moved to Romulus the following year. According to Hedke, in the last 10 years 100 percent of those graduating were accepted to a college or university.

Also, according to a 2017 report, Summit had the highest graduation rate among charter schools in Michigan and was ranked in the top 50 by graduation rate during the 2015-2016 school year. Summit, rated No. 17, had a graduation rate of 98.58 percent, nearly 20 percent better than the state average of 79.65.

Mission accomplished.

But something was missing: a competitive athletics program. Often a viable athletic program will enhance academics. A competitive athletic program can generate enthusiasm and give students a reason to be proud of their school, in addition to academics.

Summit Academy North High School didn’t sponsor varsity sports until the early 2000s and, frankly, they weren’t very good, particularly in the sports of boys basketball and football. From 2004-2016 the football team boasted three winning seasons and made the playoffs once (2007). Until the 2019-20 season, the most wins the basketball team totaled was 10.

“Our focus has been on the scholar-athlete,” Hedke said. “We focus on academics. Our GPA (grade-point average) requirements are higher than what the (Michigan High School Athletic Association) requires.”

Hedke said there’s been quite of bit of turnover in the coaching ranks in boys basketball over the years. Part of this is due to the lack of success, as far as wins and losses, but some of this can be attributed to the high standards Hedke and her fellow administrators demand. Swearing is taboo, and a coach is expected to be a stickler for discipline, and must adhere to a strict decorum.

With the backing of Summit athletic director William McKoy, veteran coach Mark White, less than a month before the start of the season, was hired in November of 2018. Summit was 9-12 during White’s first season before showing vast improvement last winter finishing 16-4. Highlighting that season was the school’s first division title (within the Charter School Conference) and a spot in a Division 2 District Final against Flat Rock. Summit has never won a District title so this game loomed as the most important in school history.

Then COVID-19 hit, ending the season.

Romulus Summit Academy North boys basketball 2Summit returned four starters from that team and is off to a 15-0 start with the MHSAA Tournament less than a week away.  Most of its victories have been by double digits including last Saturday’s 71-53 victory over Taylor, a Division 1 school, and Tuesday’s 72-46 victory over Detroit Community in a conference tournament quarterfinal. Summit’s semifinal is scheduled for Thursday.

Two wins stand out in particular, and both came on the road. Summit defeated Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy, 54-51, on March 1 and then upset No. 3-ranked (in Division 2) Detroit Edison, 49-46, on March 8. Edison’s only other loss this season was to Warren De La Salle Collegiate, a Division 1 school, 72-68. Both Chandler Park and Edison are Charter School Conference members and have had strong programs over the years.

White starts one senior, guard Jamel Johnson, who’s averaging 10 points per game and was selected second-team all-conference. Sophomore James Wright averages 17 points and nine rebounds. White’s top player is junior and three-year starter Orlando Lovejoy, Jr., a 6-2 guard who was selected conference player of the year. His 23 points led Summit in its victory over Community. Lovejoy averages 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per game.

“All of our players got better during the offseason,” Lovejoy said. “(White) is an intense coach. He’s demanding. He’s constantly pushing us. He’s a perfectionist.”

Much of the credit goes to White for the recent success, but one can’t overlook the talented players within the school. Take the recent success of the football program for example. The football team was 0-9 in both 2015 and 2016. The Dragons went 5-4 the next two seasons before finishing 8-3 in 2019, a run which included an 18-12 victory over Redford Union in a Division 4 District opener, the program’s first playoff win. This past regular season was shortened to six games because of the pandemic, and Summit won two playoff games finishing 7-2.

“Summit is an excellent school,” White said. “They’re in line with what I want to be as a coach.

“There are more accolades for a team that hasn’t been that good in the past. (Winning) has never been done before here. I feel the best is yet to come, and not just for the team, but for the school as well. Gaining recognition in basketball helps promote the school. People will find out about how good Summit is as a school.”

Winning is anything but new for White. His first season as a head coach was at his alma mater Detroit Renaissance in 1998. In 2000 Renaissance, which had never played for a Detroit Public School League title, won the PSL defeating Detroit Redford, 41-37, in the championship game. Renaissance won the title again in 2002 and 2003. Renaissance then won two MHSAA Class B titles (2004, 2006) under White.

White left Renaissance after the 2005-06 season to become head coach at Adrian College, another alma mater. He spent seven seasons there before returning to the high school level at River Rouge. White guided River Rouge to the Class B Semifinals in 2017 and 2018.

White said he couldn’t be happier, at this time in his professional life, than he is now at Summit. In addition to his duties as the boys basketball coach, White is also the school’s academic interventionist and assistant athletic director.

Romulus Summit Academy North boys basketball 3Lovejoy is aware of the success his coach has had at other schools. And even though Summit hasn’t achieved that type of success, he said anything is possible.

“We want to win our conference tournament, a District and Regional title, and the states,” Lovejoy said. “To some that’s farfetched, but it is realistic. We’re with a coach who’s done it before.

“This is special. (Summit) has never won a District, and here we are undefeated. We’re soaking it all in. We want to give the school something to cheer about.”

Lovejoy and his teammates recently gave Hedke a gift from their hearts. It’s a poster, a collage of sorts, with photos of the team in addition to pictures the players painted. This was in response to Hedke being a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with breast cancer this past November and now is cancer-free.

“Mark is a wonderful coach,” Hedke said. “He focuses on what (the players) do well. He talks about who they are and what they represent. He teaches them to be aware. When I was going through my cancer, he told the players that we’re fighting on the court to win a game. She’s fighting for her life.”

The players have since dedicated their season to Hedke.

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Raevon Thomas (10) gets up a shot during Summit Academy’s Senior Night win over Taylor. (Middle) Summit’s Orlando Lovejoy makes a move to the basket Saturday. (Below) Dragons coach Mark White huddles his team. (Photos by Aaron Goodman.)

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.)