HAMILTON – The senior year for a high school athlete is the last opportunity to make a mark on a program.
For the eight seniors on the Hamilton boys basketball team, an indelible impression was made.
The Hawkeyes’ season ended Wednesday night in a Division 2 Regional Final against a talented Grand Rapids South Christian squad.
However, their remarkable regular season, and subsequent postseason run, will be fondly remembered by the people in this small West Michigan community for years to come.
“Our goal going tonto the season was to win a District and to have a good season, but more importantly to prove to the Hamilton community and to prove to people that followed us and ourselves that anything can be done when you put your mind to it,” Hamilton boys basketball coach Nick Kronemeyer said. “Anybody can be beat, and you can accomplish anything if you do it the right way and do it together. We wanted to inspire 6,500 people in Hamilton with that message.”
Hamilton produced a storybook season and compiled a pair of accomplishments that hadn’t been achieved in more than three decades.
The Hawkeyes won a conference championship for the first time since 1988 and then proceeded to capture the program’s first District crown since 1987.
They finished 22-5 overall after struggling to a 7-15 record a year ago.
“We knew this group coming up was a talented group and loved the game of basketball,” Kronemeyer said. “We thought we were going to be pretty good last year with this group, and we kind of underachieved a little bit. Coming into this year, we believed wholeheartedly that we could have a special season if we did it the right way and learned from some of the things we went through last year.”
Lessons were learned and success was gained as the Hawkeyes recorded the second-most wins in school history and provided several thrilling moments for their spirited fanbase.
“After I played my last football game, I knew the last basketball season was going to be really hard and you just have to give it your all because you only get so many games and then you're done,” Hamilton four-year player Brandt Goodpaster said. “So to have that much success and have as many extra games as we did was a blessing as a senior.”
Hamilton’s main objective for the season was a long-awaited District title, but as the final two weeks of the regular season approached, the team realized it was still in the hunt for an Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue title.
“We were just trying to get better, trying to play our best at the end of the year,” Kronemeyer said. “The conference title didn’t get talked about, but when we got to the last couple weeks we realized we had a chance and started to go after those games.”
Hamilton played Coopersville in the final conference game and came away with its biggest road win in many years.
“It was for all the marbles, it was for the outright conference championship and it was a game that you dream about growing up and why you put the work in,” Kronemeyer said. “That meant a lot to our community, and the way it happened at the end, it was just a pretty special night.”
The Hawkeyes erased years of futility in the conference when Goodpaster made the game-winning shot during the waning seconds.
A fitting conclusion for a stunning turnaround.
“It was a huge team effort, and it just ended up in my hands for the last shot,” Goodpaster said. “My shot didn't win the game though, all the possessions and defense before that and all those things leading up to it won the game for us.”
The next stop was Districts, and the Hawkeyes were still riding the emotional wave from the conference title.
A win over Holland Christian – which had knocked Hamilton out of the postseason the past two years – followed by victories over South Haven and Allegan earned the Hawkeyes a coveted District championship.
“It was an accumulation of everything that has gone into it over the past couple years, and we played really well that night and got the job done,” Kronemeyer said. “We had talked about what it would be like for the first team that does it, and we knew it was going to be a special experience.
“The kids signed shoes, napkins and T-shirts for an hour after the game. That was a pretty special experience for the community and the program. It was just a great night.”
And the District title occurred on their home court.
“The message from Coach from the very start was we are going to cut the net and we are going to win a District,” Goodpaster said. “We'll be the first team to do it and reset the standard.
“When I found out we were hosting Districts, we thought that this is the way we have to go out. Senior year, on our home court, no other option than to win and be District champs.”
Hamilton didn’t stop there and added another memorable moment in the Regional Semifinal against Marshall. The Hawkeyes trailed by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, but rallied and won on a tip-in at the buzzer by senior Austin Osborne, another four-year varsity performer.
“That was a dogfight, and we just made plays at the end,” Kronemeyer said.
Other contributors for Hamilton included leading scorer Justin McIllwain, a junior, and seniors JD DeGroot and Brady Tebo.
“I’m proud of our seniors and that group,” Kronemeyer said. “They came to play every game, and all the credit goes to our guys. They were great to be around and did it the right way.”
Dean 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) Hamilton raises its first boys basketball District championship trophy since 1987 on March 10. (Middle) The Hawkeyes continue the celebration on their home court. (Photos courtesy of the Hamilton school district.)