Senior's Steal Seals 2nd Straight Title

March 23, 2013

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

EAST LANSING — Even on an MHSAA championship basketball team, there’s not always peace and harmony within the ranks.

There are still internal fires to be put out by coaches, whose job descriptions don’t call for pleasing everyone all of the time.

When Jalen Pettes was disappointed with limited playing time early last season, Flint Beecher coach Mike Williams had to talk the then-junior into sticking with the program.

“He had a tough time,” Williams said. “The first seven, eight games, he didn’t play much. He was ready to quit. I had a meeting with he and his mom. I told him, ‘Jalen, if you give me everything I want in practice, I guarantee you that by next year, I’m not going to be able to take you out of the game — period. But you’ve got to bring it.’”

Pettes played sparingly the rest of the season during Beecher’s championship run, but his work ethic in practice forced Williams to keep his promise this season.

Overshadowed by the exploits of Mr. Basketball Monte Morris, Pettes’ tenacious defense is one of the key reasons Beecher is celebrating back-to-back MHSAA Finals championships in boys basketball for the first time.

Pettes’ fifth steal of the game with 2.4 seconds remaining thwarted Laingsburg’s final attempt at springing an upset, as Beecher held on for a 40-39 victory on Saturday at the Breslin Center.

It’s the fifth MHSAA Finals title for the program, which would’ve won three Class B championships in a row from 1985-87 if not for Chris Coles’ miraculous half-court buzzer-beater for Saginaw Buena Vista in
the 1986 Final.

“I love winning it this way,” Williams said. “It’s just that much more gratifying to know that we earned it.”

Beecher’s success through the years has been predicated upon a stifling defense. Pettes acknowledges that he isn’t going to light up score sheets like Morris, but he became a key contributor to this year’s championship by completely buying in to the Buccaneers’ defensive philosophy.

“I really don’t score a lot,” Pettes said. “I just like to play defense and get stops and let my team do the rest. Defense just comes easy to me. I just like playing defense.”

Once he committed to stick with the team last season, he honed those defensive skills against two of the best guards in the state.

“Jalen had to guard Monte Morris and Antuan Burks all last year in practice,” Williams said. “In order for him to get on the floor last year, he had to play defense in practice. So now you take a year later, he’s four or five inches taller and stronger, and he doesn’t fear anybody, because he’s been guarding Mr. Basketball his whole life.”

Laingsburg (24-3), which received only honorable mention in the final Associated Press rankings, almost sprung a huge upset on the top-ranked Buccaneers (27-1).

The Wolfpack, which led 18-12 in the second quarter, took a 35-34 lead with 5:02 remaining on a free throw by Ryan Wade. Back-to-back scores\ near the basket by Markell Lucas and a driving layup by Morris gave Beecher a 40-35 lead with 2:25 to go.

Shaun McKinney cut the lead to one by hitting two free throws with 2:04 left and a basket with 1:05 remaining.

On Beecher’s next possession, Morris drove to the basket, only to have his shot rejected by Sam Edwards. Laingsburg got the ball, pushed it up the floor and called timeout with 17.5 seconds on the clock.

What followed was a helter-skelter possession which ended when Pettes came up with a loose ball and was fouled with 2.4 seconds left. Pettes sat on the floor clapping his hands, then pumped his fist as he got up.

“When I got that steal, I knew we won the game,” he said.

Pettes missed the front end of a one-and-one, McKinney grabbed the rebound for Laingsburg, but time expired as he heaved a long pass down the floor toward Jake Zielinski.

“My heart goes out to our guys,” Laingsburg coach Greg Mitchell said. “I’m so thankful for their effort. I thought we played really, really good team basketball today. A bounce or two here or there and we’re feeling a little bit better than we are right now.

“This was a team that was not expected to win our league, not expected to win our district, not expected to win our regional, certainly not expected to get here. But we’re a couple points shy of being the state champs. That’s going to be a tough one.”

Beecher won, despite flu-like symptoms that hit Morris and fellow starter Emmanuel Phifier the morning of the game. Morris wasn’t in the game early in the third quarter when Laingsburg turned a 24-19 deficit into a 26-24 lead. He finished with 16 points and two assists, his lowest totals in six career MHSAA tournament games at the Breslin Center. Phifier had only four points.

“You could see that Monte was sick,” Williams said. “He could barely finish the game. But he pulled it out. Without him, we’re not sitting on this podium (as Class C champion) right now. He’s actually too sick to even walk out of the bathroom right now.”

Morris played in the 109th and final game of his Beecher career, breaking the MHSAA record of 108 games played by Flint Powers Catholic’s Patrick Lucas-Perry from 2007-08 to 2010-11. Beecher had a 98-11 record during Morris’ four years, including 55-1 during the last two.

McKinney scored 15 points and Zielinski 14 for Laingsburg.

“Finishing is what we want,” Zielinski said. “We were a couple plays short. We just have to live with the results.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Beecher's Monte Morris (11) dunks during Saturday's Class C Final win over Laingsburg. (Middle) Laingsburg's Zach Walker (12) looks to pass to teammate Jake Zielinski (4) while Morris and others defend. (Click to see more at

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.)