Senior-Led Stevenson Makes Statement

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 22, 2016

STERLING HEIGHTS – Three times coach Rick Bye took Sterling Heights Stevenson to the MHSAA Finals in football.

Since the mid-1980s few schools in the Metro Detroit area have a football program as successful as that at Stevenson. Since 1985, Stevenson has qualified for the football playoffs 20 times. Twelve times the Titans won 10 or more games. During one stretch they reached the Semifinals six consecutive seasons (1993-98).

The baseball program has thrived recently under coach Joe Emanuele. The Titans won the Division 1 title in 2005, reached the Semifinals twice (2011 and 2013) and went to the Quarterfinals in 2014.

But in boys basketball, the Titans have not been able to compete at nearly as high a level as football and baseball. Before this season, Stevenson had one Regional title.

Now it has two.

Stevenson (20-4) defeated Roseville, 60-44, last Wednesday in a Class A Regional Final. The Titans will face North Farmington (22-2) in tonight’s 7 p.m. Quarterfinal at Calihan Hall at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Coach Mark LaCombe is in his third season, and the Titans have shown improvement each winter. They were 13-8 in 2013-14 and 16-5 last season, a finish that included a Macomb Area Conference White title.

But first-round knockouts in the MHSAA Tournament didn’t sit well with the five seniors who start for LaCombe this season.

Luke Lamoreaux, a 5-foot-9 point guard and a three-year starter, is one of four returning from last season’s lineup. He was the captain on the soccer team in the fall and is the leader of this team. Lamoreaux said the difference between last season and the team this season is experience.

“We’ve gotten stronger in the weight room,” he said. “We hit the weight room a lot.

“It’s a lot of hard work. Plus it’s a senior-led team. We played a lot of tough teams in the summer. And we played a tough nonconference schedule. We played (Macomb) Dakota. We had a 15-point lead and lost in overtime. We said if we can play with the No. 2-ranked team, we can play with anybody. We’d like another shot.

“We’ve always been a good football school. We’ve wanted to make our mark in basketball. What we’re doing now is we’re making a statement with this run.”

Stevenson isn’t a tall team. Its tallest starter is Stacy Howard at 6-2. LaCombe uses a four-guard lineup and generally subs two to three off the bench. Jahi Hinson (6-3) is one of those reserves, and he’s the lone junior in the rotation.

“We’re undersized,” LaCombe said. “The kids play harder than anyone we play. The kids that play, play at a high level.”

Three players, including Lamoreaux, average between 11 and 12 points. Mylon Weathers (6-0) and Vince Ramachi (6-1) averaged 12 points apiece, Lamoreaux 11.5. Lamoreaux has stepped up his game in the tournament. He’s averaging 15.5 in four tournament games.

“The basket looks really big to him now,” LaCombe said. “He’s getting a name for himself. He plays well on the big stage.”

Weathers is the team’s top defender and will guard the opposition’s top scoring guard. In a District Semifinal, he held Clinton Township Chippewa Valley senior Steven Lloyd to 11 points, 10 below Lloyd’s average.

Stevenson hasn’t received much publicity this season for obvious reasons. LaCombe knows a team has to earn respect, and he said that’s what his team has done. The MAC White isn’t a strong basketball division, and to prepare his team for a long run LaCombe scheduled nonleague games against Rockford, Detroit Western International, Rochester Adams, Warren DeLaSalle and Detroit Country Day. Stevenson’s four losses were to teams that won District titles.

“We weren’t quite ready last year,” he said. “Defensively they’ve executed as well as a coach could ask for. They’ve made adjustments. We trap a lot.

“The brackets were set up perfectly for us. A lot of times you set goals for the season: a league and district titles. That wouldn’t have been good enough for this group. I don’t think we’ll have a group like this come out of Stevenson for a long time.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously 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) Luke Lamoreaux and assistant coach Bill Szlaga share a celebratory embrace during Stevenson's Quarterfinal run. (Middle) Stacy Howard (3) prepares to signal a 3-pointer as teammate Austin Beba launches the shot. (Photos courtesy of the Sterling Heights Stevenson boys basketball program.) 

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.)