Senior Bucs Lead 3rd Straight Title Run

March 25, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – The generations of Flint Beecher basketball rolled over again Saturday at the Breslin Center.

From the stands, stars of recent championships Monte Morris and Aquavius Burks cheered on the current Bucs, whose seniors were finishing the most impressive run in the program’s storied history – and preparing the next group to continue the tradition for years to come.

Four senior starters – Malik Ellison, Jordan Roland, Levane Blake and Edrice Hardnett – helped Beecher put the finishing touch on its third straight Class C championship and fifth in six seasons with a 73-58 win over Grand Rapids Covenant Christian.

Ellison, Roland and Blake all were four-year varsity players for the Bucs, joining the team after Morris led Beecher to the 2012 and 2013 Class C titles. Hardnett saw the floor briefly in the 2015 Final and joined the starting lineup this winter. Filling out Saturday’s first five was freshman guard Jalen Terry, the presumed next star in a growing list.

“When I was in the eighth grade, Monte took me under his wing, and he was showing me all the rights and wrongs to get to the championship,” Ellison said. “Basically, that’s what I was trying to do with Little E (Earnest Sanders) and Little Jalen. So when the new set of guys come in, they can sprinkle a little joy and education to them.

“Basically, it’s just a slippery slope. Just tell somebody else, and everybody else is going to adapt to it.”

Beecher finished this season 23-5, and coach Mike Williams said he believes Roland, Blake and Ellison finished with 109 varsity games, which would tie at least Powers North Central’s Jason Whitens, and possibly Morris for the most in MHSAA history.

Morris, who just finished a fantastic career at Iowa State, had FaceTimed Ellison earlier Saturday, nothing new in a relationship that has continued since the mentor left for the next level.

Ellison talked after the win about comparing his life to a book, and his “big brother” Morris certainly played a big part in writing this chapter. Ellison finished it by scoring 32 points as the Bucs held off a spirited push by Covenant Christian, which was playing in its first MHSAA championship game since 1994.

Unranked entering the postseason – while Beecher was tied for the No. 4 slot – the Chargers (21-6) played the Bucs to a tie in the first quarter and trailed by only three points heading into the fourth.

“I’m really proud of our guys. We had to believe to start the game we could win it, and I thought they showed that,” Covenant Christian coach Tyler Schimmel said. “I thought we got over the biggest challenge right as we left the hotel, and stepped off the bus. We knew a lot of people (in the media) and the arena didn’t think we had a chance, but we knew we did.”

Beecher’s seniors stepped in once more to close the door. After Terry opened the quarter with the Bucs’ first three points, the seniors scored the next 18 as their team pulled away.

Covenant Christian, meanwhile, made only 4 of 13 shots during the fourth quarter and tallied 10 of their 19 turnovers over those final eight minutes. Blake had nine points, but also 12 rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots while providing the most sizable obstacle to the Chargers’ comeback attempt.

“We talked about in the huddle, we have eight minutes left in your playing life, and what are you going to do about it?” Williams said. “And the whole thing is our identity is our defense. When the kids sit down, start applying the pressure, I think it really got to them.

“(Blake’s) been doing that for us for four years. He anchors our defense. He talks to everybody, and he’s one of the best defenders in the state. We wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in, winning our third state title, without this kid anchoring the defense, cleaning the glass. A lot of things that he does do not show up on the stat sheet.”

Roland added 15 points in his final game, and Terry had nine and six rebounds.

Junior forward Carson Meulenberg led Covenant Christian with 20 points and eight rebounds, while junior guard Tyler Cammenga had 13 points and junior forward Trenton Koole added 11 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

They’ll lead a lineup that should challenge again next season and won’t surprise anyone – including Beecher, if their paths should cross.

“There were a couple of times this season where probably people wrote us off, … but these guys have a ton of fight,” Schimmel said. “I think our fans and community have a lot to be proud of.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Beecher’s Levane Blake (22) dunks during Saturday’s Class C Final as Carson Meulenberg tries to obstruct his path. (Middle) The Bucs’ Malik Ellison goes hard to the basket, but Covenant Christian’s Trenton Koole (20) gets in the way.

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.)