Saints' Kreski Sets Bar for U.P. Scoring

April 11, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

Basketball is all about scoring points and stopping teams from scoring.

Gage Kreski of St. Ignace is one of those rare players who excel on both ends of the floor.

Kreski eclipsed a 51-year-old Upper Peninsula scoring record this season while also establishing himself as a defensive ball hawk. That production helped him become Associated Press Class C Player of the Year in Michigan. He was also a three-time Division 7-8 all-state football selection.

Kreski finished his four-year basketball career with 2,178 points, surpassing the mark of 2,140 points set by Dom (Duke) Jacobetti of Negaunee St. Paul from 1962-65. Kreski also became his school's all-time points leader, topping Krista Clement's 2,060. Steve McDonald was the previous boys pace-setter with 1,972.

Just two years ago, Lexi Gussert of Crystal Falls Forest Park became the all-time girls – and overall – scoring leader in the U.P. with 2,630 points. Allison Bailey of Ewen-Trout Creek had set the previous girls mark of 2,131 points in 1996.

"I was not focused on the record," Kreski said recently while on spring break in Panama Beach, Fla. "My goal was to make it deep into the playoffs."

The Saints (17-4), however, were upset by Boyne City in their Class C District opener.

A 6-foot-3, 195-pound point guard who frequently took his defender inside, Kreski scored 519 points this season. His career points will rank 15th on the MHSAA's career list for that category.

On defense, he set an MHSAA record with 450 career steals (Matt Taylor of Pinckney had 363 through 2000). Kreski also set a single-season record of 137 steals this school year and pulled down more than 900 rebounds during his career.

"I like scoring points, but defense is more important and I liked it a little more because I had to do the job," Kreski said, noting coach Doug Ingalls is a stickler about defense, highlighted by frenetic full-court pressure. "Defense first for sure.You play all-out on defense the whole game and the offense goes from there."

Ingalls also runs an offense similar to what he played under his dad, Jack, at Gladstone High School, using a motion approach – or perhaps freelance to a degree.

"We don't have many sets, but we know how to play basketball," Kreski said.

"For us to be good, he had to score a lot. It was all about winning for him," said Ingalls.

Ingalls admitted Kreski's weakness was shooting, but that he made up for it with a sterling overall game. "He has great instincts and is a very, very good athlete," said Ingalls. "I would get on his case because sometimes he was not aggressive enough going for steals. He has the length, the quickness and is savvy. He can guard anybody.

"He gets to the bucket and gets his points in many different ways. I can't imagine anyone being a better all-around basketball player. He is so good at making the right decision. He passes as well as anybody.”

At a time when perimeter scoring is stressed more and more – think of Steph Curry and other potent sharp shooters – Kreski made fewer than 35 shots beyond the 3-point arc this season.

That was drastically different than the method used by Jacobetti, whose career ended more than 20 years before the 3-point shot was adopted. A wing guard for three years before replacing his graduated brother at the point for his final season, Jacobetti's normal shot was from the perimeter, and usually well past today's 3-point arc.

He estimated perhaps 70 percent of his field goal attempts were outside that line, yet he unbelievably converted about 85 percent of his shots. "I shot basically from outside," Jacobetti said. 

During his era, many small-school gyms were tiny, with well below regulation-sized floors that allowed offenses to get the ball into scoring range quickly. The feet of spectators often were on the playing floor, and at some gyms the base line was painted on the wall while the three jump circles were often intertwined. Jacobetti pointed out, "You didn't have much room to run an offense."

In his first game on the varsity as a freshman, Jacobetti scored 22 points and did not miss a field goal or free throw. He averaged about 12 points as a freshman, and then raised it to 22, 28 and 32 points per game, respectively, over his final three seasons.

Asked about a potential career behind the arc, Jacobetti said he has not really thought about it much because it wasn't part of the game at that time. "Wherever you had a shot from, you took it," he said of a fairly simple yet very effective approach.

Jacobetti finished three points ahead of Trout Creek legend Jim Manning, who finished his ended in 1961 with 2,137 points. Jacobetti's career ended in a tournament loss at Pickford and he recalled a Sault Ste. Marie sportswriter informing him after the game that he had just set the Upper Peninsula scoring record.

"I was shocked. I had no idea (about the record)," he said, noting it was not a big deal at the time, perhaps because it was only four years old. "It wasn't talked about a great deal."

Jacobetti only remembers one time in his career when scoring was stressed. His coach at the time, Gordy LeDuc, told him the offense would run through him in a game at Negaunee's Lakeview Arena. Just a night earlier, Pat Groleau of Nahma scored 48 points and LeDuc said, "Duke, tonight you're going to break the record." 

Jacobetti scored 52 points, but he said, "I didn't feel comfortable because everybody was giving me the ball."

Jacobetti and Kreski share the same idea about basketball. Jacobetti said, "It was win or lose, not really about the points." Kreski, in a telephone chat about 30 minutes earlier, said, "I just tried to win the game. It (McDonald's record) was a goal but winning was first, and for us to win games I had to score a little bit."

He knew about McDonald's mark, obviously, but didn't learn about Jacobetti's record until he was within about 300 points. "It was not the most important thing on my mind," he said.

He said Ingalls told him, "We're not going to do anything that we normally don't do. If it happens, it happens."

It happened Feb. 27 when Kreski produced a single-game best 46 points against Pellston.

While Jacobetti's record lasted 51 years, Kreski's could be erased next season. Jason Whitens of two-time defending Class D champion Powers North Central has already amassed 1,409 points. Whitens scored 623 points this season.

"Records are made to be broken," said Jacobetti. "I never expected it to last as long as it did. Give that kid a lot of credit. I am very happy for him. He sure put in a lot of work and a lot of time. It is quite an accomplishment. I realize what it takes. I put in hours and hours myself (much of it on outdoor courts during winter with snow banks towering around the surface), and I know he did."

Ingalls confirmed that opinion. "I'm disappointed that other varsity basketball coaches didn't have the chance to coach him. They would be amazed at how hard he works.

"That work ethic comes from his parents. His dad Paul played football at Northern Michigan University, and his mother Deanna was a basketball player at NMU and was named to the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

"I have good genes, I guess," Kreski said, noting how both parents have put in time helping him pursue his hoops career. "They never really forced me to play or go work out. They made sure I had a positive attitude and (knew) how to be a good man.

"They have just been awesome in my life. They have had a great impact."
He said Ingalls "has been the man. He did everything for me, and my parents have been there for me all the time. Doug's wife (St. Ignace girls basketball coach Dorene) has pretty much raised me."

Kreski will finish his basketball career at the U.P. All-Star Classic in Marquette on June 18. He will put all his athletic focus on football when he reports to Central Michigan University as an invited walk-on in August. The all-state football player (he played quarterback and defensive back for the Saints) will likely play safety but could also become a wide receiver.

"My body is a little better suited for football," he acknowledged. "To be a point guard in Division I (basketball) you have to be 6-4 and be extremely lightning quick. I'm quick, but not lightning quick."

Just as he has adopted a sensible approach to his athletic future, knowing where he fits and where he may not, Kreski did everything he could to help the Saints before worrying about his personal achievements.

"I'm extremely proud of him and happy for him. I will follow his career at Central," said Jacobetti, who hopes to meet Kreski at the U.P. All-Star Classic.

Top five U.P. boys basketball scorers

2,178 - Gage Kreski, St. Ignace, 2012-2016
2,140 - Dominic Jacobetti, Negaunee St. Paul, 1961-65
2,137 - Jim Manning, Trout Creek, 1957-61
2,086 - Bob Gale, Trout Creek, 1962-66
2,010 - Jim Hammerberg, Baraga, 1992-96

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTO: (Top) Gage Kreski pushes the ball upcourt during a game against Pickford in 2015. (Middle) Dom Jacobetti was the previous Upper Peninsula career scoring record holder. (Top photo by Paul Gerard; bottom courtesy of the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame.)

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.)