Southfield Christian Earns Return

March 21, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Damarco White was not part of Southfield Christian’s run to the Class D championship last season. But he got an earful from teammates Bakari Evelyn and Lindsey Hunter IV about what to expect Thursday at the Breslin Center.

Not that he didn't believe them. But it didn’t take long for the 6-foot-7 junior to truly understand what they meant. 

The Eagles' physical and fast-paced Class D Semifinal against Lansing Christian featured 123 shots and 67 free-throw attempts, 15 tie scores and 17 lead changes. But over the final 2:15, Southfield Christian simply outlasted the Pilgrims in pulling away for a 75-68 win and another title game berth. 

“They told me it wasn’t easy, and they were right,” White said. “I just tried to play my best. I try not to let my team lose every game I go out there.

“We’ve won 19 straight. We’re trying to make it 20.”

Southfield Christian (22-4), No. 3 at the end of the regular season, will face top-ranked Wyoming Tri-unity Christian at 10 a.m. Saturday to decide the title.

The Eagles no doubt will spend some of Friday resting up.

Only over the final two minutes – and after three Lansing Christian players fouled out – was Southfield Christian able to secure Thursday’s win. And those final two minutes followed six during which either the Pilgrims led or the score was tied.

“That’s what these guys have done all year. In tough games, tough situations, they hang in,” Eagles coach Josh Baker said.

“Our guys definitely picked up the intensity, picked up the ball pressure, sped up the pace. Part of it was (Lansing Chrstian) got into foul trouble and lost some guys. But I think we’re a little deeper. Hopefully we wore them down.”

Southfield Christian also took advantage of its ability to make free throws, connecting on 35 of 44 after entering the game on a streak of 23 straight makes. Sophomore guard Bakari Evelyn made 13 of 15 on the way to a team-high 22 points, and Hunter hit 8 of 9 in scoring 21 points total. White made 7 of 8 and finished with 19 points.  

The game style and pace indeed took a toll on the Pilgrims, who played mostly their starting five through the first three quarters. Lansing Christian’s standouts showed lots of hustle and forced a number of the Eagles’ 24 turnovers. But only two starters were around for the final minutes.

“That’s how we’ve played all year long. We’ve got great kids on the bunch, but a lot of them are just getting their start in the game of basketball,” Lansing Christian coach Steve Ernst said. “Certainly, that was a different type of game than we’ve seen this year.”

Still, it took a final jolt to get the Eagles moving on. And Hunter delivered it during a timeout, when he told his teammates that “this is our stage” and they needed to play to that level.

White had six of his points and three of his seven blocks during the fourth quarter. He also grabbed 12 rebounds for the game. Evelyn had six steals and Hunter had five.

“We’ve been in that situation before, and we just had to stick with each other,” said Evelyn, a top sub on last season’s team.

“For some reason, we always play better defense in crunch time. I guess that’s our fault, but we noticed they got tired. I guess we turned up the heat.”

Senior Skylar Ross led Lansing Christian with 23 points. Senior Josh Whitney had 16 and eight rebounds, and senior Jay Noyola had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five steals. Junior Jordan Terry added 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals.

Lansing Christian finished 22-4 and tied its longest postseason run. The Pilgrims also made the Semifinals in 1984.

“Certainly we appreciate being able to play on this big stage,” Ernst said, “and the tremendous group of seniors who helped transform this program in a short period of time. We’re proud of their effort, and we were excited to play a program like Southfield Christian.”

Click for the full box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Southfield Christian's Lindsey Hunter IV rises toward the basket during Thursday's Class D Semifinal at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Southfield Christian's Bakari Evelyn (22) works to get around Lansing Christian's Jay Noyola while Pilgrims coach Steve Ernst directs his players from the sideline. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)