Starkey's Petoskey Ready to Shine Again

December 15, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

PETOSKEY – Dennis Starkey remembers it like it happened yesterday.

Thirty-five years ago, at the age of 23, Starkey made his varsity head coaching debut with the Boyne City Ramblers.

“The first game I coached was against the legendary Charlie Paige (Harbor Springs),” Starkey recalled. “I got it handed to me pretty good. I knew I had a long way to go after that ballgame.”

Starkey learned quickly. Now, starting his 31st season as coach of the Petoskey Northmen, the 58-year-old is among the winningest coaches in MHSAA history. His 536 career wins rank 18th all-time among boys coaches – with an average of nearly 16 wins a season.

Starkey should move up that list in the coming weeks as the Northmen appear poised for a promising winter.

Petoskey opened the campaign by capturing its Tip-Off Classic last weekend, beating Marquette 55-38 and Manton 66-57. Marquette won 20 games a year ago, while Manton was a Class C semifinalist.

“It’s a great start,” Starkey said. “We played two good teams. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re excited. This is a good group. These guys were really committed during the offseason. Hopefully, that will pay dividends.”

Petoskey was an uncharacteristic 12-8 a year ago. That squad was comprised of three seniors and nine juniors – and one of the key juniors, 6-foot-9 center Danny Kolp, was recovering from knee surgery.

“I’ve always said you win and lose with seniors,” Starkey said. “Our inexperience really showed last year. Luckily, we’re loaded with seniors this year. We’re hoping to get back to where we were before.”

The Northmen were 20-2 two years ago.

Motivation should not be a problem.

“We were pretty unhappy with how we did last year,” senior Joel Wilson, a two-year starter, said. “I expect a lot from this team.”

So does Kolp.

“(High school) memories last forever, and we want to make this a memorable senior season,” he said. “We want to reach our full potential. We have a high ceiling.

“We have the athleticism and skills to make a run in the tournament,” he added. “That’s our goal. Petoskey hasn’t been to a Regional (since 2012). We have a good chance to do it this year if we keep playing as a team.”

Petoskey, which returns four starters, put its size and balance on display last weekend. Seth Mann, a 6-5 guard, averaged 17 points in the two wins. Kolp, who has signed with Northwood University, came up big in the paint, averaging 16 points, six rebounds and two blocks. The athletic 6-4 Wilson contributed 13 points a game, and 6-5 Jake Lee 9.5 points. All are seniors, as is starting point guard Collin Kingma.

Petoskey not only used its length to its advantage – especially defensively and on the boards – but played with a focus.

“I think the biggest improvement thus far is mental,” assistant coach Kevin Starkey, Dennis’s son, said. “Even coach Hiller (Ryan Hiller at Manton) told me after watching the Marquette game that the guys looked locked in, ready to go. It’s visibly noticeable.”

Dennis Starkey started this season much like he has the previous 34, preaching a “team first” approach. From there, he addressed the standards his program is built on.

“It starts with being good students, good citizens,” he said. “If you have to fight issues that do not involve basketball, then you’re never going to be successful (on the court). Our guys have bought into a system that starts with everyone playing together, playing the way we expect and acting the way we expect.”

Starkey asks that his players, especially his seniors, take ownership of the team. As a reminder, after each practice, the coaches step away as the players huddle on the court to dissect that day’s effort.

“The one thing I’ve always enjoyed about coach Starkey is that he emphasizes it’s our team and we can make it how we want to make it,” Kolp, a three-year varsity veteran, said. “We’re not going to be as good if he’s the only one barking at us. He holds us accountable, and we enjoy that challenge.”

“He likes to say we’re all coaches on the court, that we should be coaching and learning from each other,” Wilson added. “He stresses that every day.”

It helps, of course, to have a team that’s already tightly woven. The seniors on this team have been playing basketball together since fifth grade and are “buddies” off the court.

On the court, Starkey clearly sets the tone, though.

“He’s not afraid to get in your face,” Wilson said. “He pushes you hard. But it’s all for the better.”

Petoskey has long been noted for producing disciplined, fundamentally-sound teams. That’s Starkey’s style.

“We try to play up-tempo as much as we can,” he said. “But we really rely on executing offensively and defensively in the half court.”

It’s an approach that runs deep in the system. Sean Pollion, Matt Tamm and Jason Miller all have 20-plus years coaching high school basketball at the school. Pollion is an assistant to Starkey, Tamm is now the JV coach while Miller just moved over to the girls program. In addition, Kevin Starkey and Jon Flynn, a star on the school’s two Class B Semifinal teams in the late 1990s, are assisting.

“That continuity means so much in high school basketball,” Dennis Starkey said. “Some programs have a hard time keeping coaches for extended periods. It’s been an advantage for us. It’s paid dividends.”

Starkey started honing his skills at Boyne City, serving a one-year apprenticeship under Bob Taylor, who went on to coach in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He replaced Taylor, who took the Lake Superior State women’s job, and then left Boyne City after a season to accept a head coach/athletic director position at Vanderbilt. It was there he met his wife, Karen. After three years, Starkey moved on to Petoskey. To this day, former longtime Petoskey athletic director Gary Hice calls it one of the best decisions he ever made.

Inducted into the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame in 2014, Starkey has coached teams that have won 17 Districts and four Regionals.

His 1996-98 squads featured guards Trevor Huffman, who later led Kent State to an Elite 8 NCAA Tournament appearance in 2002, and Flynn, Grand Valley State’s all-time leading scorer (2,220 points).

Starkey would later coach his sons, Kevin and Cory. Cory, who went on to earn all-state honors, played at Bucknell and then a year professionally in Ireland. After earning his master’s degree in international finance, Cory accepted a job with an investment company in Chicago. His boss? Former Charlevoix basketball standout Scott Friske, now a senior vice president at First Trust. Friske and Petoskey’s Damon Huffman, Trevor’s younger brother, were teammates at Brown. Another former Charlevoix Rayder, Jared Hunt, also works at First Trust.

“Basketball opened a door for (Cory) in the business world,” Dennis Starkey said. “He’s been blessed. When you’re involved in this sport, you have so many contacts. And a lot of the northern Michigan guys look after each other. It’s a real special bond they create, all because of high school basketball.”

But the story is not over. Trevor Huffman is also in Chicago and lives with Cory. Huffman is still involved in basketball.    

“He’s using basketball as an adult workout platform,” Starkey said. “He has guys come in and they do drills, much like we do in practice. So instead of going to the gym and lifting weights and doing cross-training, his clients, most of them former players, use basketball as a form of exercise to become more fit.”

After graduating from University of Michigan, Kevin Starkey headed back north and took a teaching/coaching job at Manton, serving as an assistant to Hiller. The Rangers first game that season?  Petoskey.

“That was bizarre, coaching against my dad,” Kevin admitted.

When Dennis Starkey retired as a physical education teacher, Kevin Starkey was hired to replace him. He’s now in his third year at the school.

It’s given Kevin a unique perspective on his dad. He played two years for him on varsity (2007-08 and 2008-09) and has now coached with him three years. When asked if he has a favorite story that encapsulates the type of person his father is, Kevin doesn’t have to think long.

“My senior year we were playing Charlevoix and I had just recently broken my hand,” he said. “It was my first game back. We didn’t know what to expect. When the game started, they were sagging off me because (the injury) was to my shooting hand. When I put up that first shot, I hit it. Then, all of a sudden, I hit five 3s in the first half. He never lets it go. It’s something I remember because he was so proud of me. It was my last (home) game and I was just trying not to air-ball it. Somehow, a few of them went in.

“Well, the next year when I came home from college – we sometimes watched old game films, or films of us growing up – he puts that game in first. He was like, ‘Man, that was so cool.’ I say that not because I need credit, but it was one of those things where he was more excited than I was for myself.”

That, Kevin added, is how Dennis is with his players. He wants the best for them.

This team is no exception.

Kolp, who has had two knee operations, is finally healthy. His last surgery was in June of 2016, and he missed the first six games a year ago.

“He really wasn’t himself - until now, to be honest,” Starkey said.

In eighth grade, Kolp landed awkwardly on his right leg, tore a ligament and dislocated his kneecap.

“They couldn’t do the full operation because I was still growing,” he explained. “Two years later I blew it out again.”

Kolp, who plans to go into an entrepreneurial program at Northwood, spent this past offseason working hard in the weight room.

“I was in there five days a week, lifting to improve my upper and lower body,” he said. “Now, during the season, I’m in there two to three times a week to maintain my strength. I feel good. Everything is coming together.”

Wilson, all agree, is the most athletic player on the squad. He was a first-team all-Big North Conference pick as a quarterback and outside linebacker in football. Several colleges have expressed interest, and he is visiting Central Michigan this weekend and will miss Saturday’s game with Zeeland East. Central Michigan is recruiting him as a preferred walk-on with plans to use him at tight end.

“It’s (disappointing) to miss the game, but I have a decision to make that will (affect) the next four years of my life,” he said.

Mann is the team’s top perimeter shooter.

“Seth is a skilled shooter,” Starkey said. “He has good size and length. I think he’s going to have a great year.”

Kolp agrees.

“With our size, if we get it into the post, and (opponents are) starting to play help defense from the backside, and Seth is in the corner, he’ll punish them for it,” he said.

It could be a special season.

Starkey, though, is not one to think too far ahead. He said the best advice he ever received was to “live in the moment, coach in the moment.”

And he knows there will be challenges ahead. There are no guarantees.

“As excited as I am with all the guys we have back, every coach in the league feels the same way,” he said. “Last year there was only one senior on the first and second all-conference team. It’s going to be a very good race.”

As for the future, Starkey, who credits a strong support system at home for his success, is not saying how much longer he’ll coach.

Kevin has an opinion, however.

“It’s something he’s really good at,” Kevin said. “I look at it like this: Don’t throw it away if you’ve still got it.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Petoskey coach Dennis Starkey huddles with his team during the season-opening Tip-Off Classic. (Middle) Joel Wilson (14) and Jake Lee share a celebratory moment. (Below) Senior Danny Kolp pushes the ball upcourt during the event. (Photos courtesy of the Petoskey News-Review.)

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.)