Sizable Fremont Has Big-Time Aspirations

December 5, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Fremont is synonymous with babies, as the founding home of Gerber Products and host of the National Baby Food Festival each July.

Some of those babies grow up to be giants – as evidenced by this year’s Fremont Packers boys basketball team.

Senior Logan Karnemaat (6-foot-10) and junior Tristan Campbell (6-8) are the twin towers whose presence sets the tone on both ends of the court for the Packers, who are off to a 2-0 start and have high hopes for the rest of the season.

“I guess you could say we ate all of our baby food, and someone must have put some Miracle-Gro in there, too,” Karnemaat said with a laugh.

Karnemaat knows all about fertilizer as a third-generation farmer. He spends much of his time when he’s not in school or playing basketball working on his family’s 3,000-acre farm operation, which includes crops and livestock.

His life goal has always been to get a business degree and return to run the family farm, with playing basketball almost an afterthought.

When pressed on the subject, he said that both Grace Christian and Calvin College in Grand Rapids have shown interest in him, then quickly added: “There are two more I can’t think of off the top of my head.”

Karnemaat is clearly more focused on making the most out of his senior basketball season, which shows signs of great promise after an impressive 45-35 win Tuesday night at Ludington, which made it all the way to the MHSAA Class B Final in 2017.

 “I’d say that was our biggest road win in 10-12 years,” said Fremont coach Peter Zerfas, who is now in his 19th year. “It was how we did it. Ludington is a very good team, but we came out with confidence and we were the more aggressive team.”

The scorebook does not tell the true story of the game, as Campbell scored only seven points and Karnemaat just five. The real story was the rebounding and shot-blocking of the twin towers – Karnemaat finished with 10 rebounds and Campbell had five blocked shots, with both of them altering and contesting countless others.

As a result of their presence, Ludington suffered through one of its worst offensive nights in recent memory, scoring just 18 total points over the first three quarters. Senior standout Josh Laman, who nailed the memorable 3-pointer in the Class B Semifinals two seasons ago to send the Orioles to the championship game, had no field goals in the first half and just 10 total points.

Fremont senior forwards Calvin Miller (11 points) and Julian Echavarria, who also have good size at 6-5 and 6-3, respectively, also contributed on both ends of the court.

Zerfas said the key to the big win was the play of his young guards, particularly junior starters Carter Moon (13 points) and Jaxx Miller, who held up under Ludington’s relentless full-court pressure during the second half.

“We have four young guards, and how well they develop will be the key for us this season,” said Zerfas, whose youngest son, sophomore Joshua Zerfas, is one of those young backcourt players. “We have the size and we have some depth, so if those guards keep coming like they are, we have a chance to be really good.”

Zerfas has the Packers competing at a championship level after back-to-back down years in 2015-16 (6-16) and 2016-17 (13-8). Basketball is a big deal in this small town, which has had some great runs in cross country but for the most part is known for baby food, farming and hoops.

Fremont has won a pack of conference and District championships, but Regionals has generally been the end of the road. In fact, the last time Fremont won a Regional championship was 1956, before losing to Stephenson that winter in the Class B Quarterfinals.

Shortly after Zerfas took over as coach in 2000, Fremont had a string of five consecutive District titles, with longtime nemesis Muskegon Heights ending the Packers’ run at the regional level in four of those five years.

Fremont fought its way back to Regionals last winter, before being humbled by Grand Rapids South Christian and finishing with a 17-7 record.

The Packers feel like they have even more pieces in place this winter and are eager to start work towards their first goal, a Central States Activities Association Gold championship, when they open league play Friday night at Reed City.

Karnemaat, who led Fremont with 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots per game last season, can’t wait for back-to-back home games next week against Montague and Sparta.

While he spends much of his time working in relative solitude on the family farm, there’s nothing he enjoys more than the contrast of playing basketball in front of a rowdy home crowd.

“Our students and our community come out and supports us, and it really helps,” Karnemaat said. “We have a good team, but then to have 2,000 fans behind you and get you going, I love it.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Fremont 6-10 senior center Logan Karnemaat holds the ball up high, well out of the reach of two Shelby defenders, during a 75-50 season-opening win Nov. 27. (Middle) Fremont sophomore Braiden McDonald, one of the contributors off the Packers' deep bench, drives to the basket. (Photos by Russell Tindall.)

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.)