Steady Seniors Pace Zeeland East's Special Season

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 26, 2021

Trip Riemersma couldn’t have scripted a better way to score the 1,000th point of his four-year varsity career.

The Zeeland East senior stole a pass during the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Division 1 District runaway against visiting archrival Zeeland West, then put the exclamation point on it with a breakaway dunk for points 999 and 1,000.

Right on cue, the small but enthusiastic student section at “The Coop” started chanting: “1,000! 1,000!”

“It’s very special, one of many things this season,” said Riemersma, who finished with 20 points in the undefeated Chix’ 61-27 victory to start postseason play. “I couldn’t have reached this milestone without my teammates. They get me the ball when I’m open, and I just convert.”

It was actually just the latest chapter in a storybook season for Zeeland East (17-0), which completed the school’s first undefeated regular season since 2009 – the year that Korey Van Dussen and Nate Snuggerad led the Chix all the way to the Class B championship game, where they lost to Flint Powers Catholic.

This year’s group has similar aspirations after winning the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green title and being ranked No. 9 in Division 1 in the final Associated Press state poll, led by five senior starters who will all be playing college sports.

Riemersma, the 6-foot-3 son of former University of Michigan football standout Jay Riemersma, gets much of the attention with his ability to shoot, drive and play inside. He averages 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and will play basketball next year at Saginaw Valley State.

Zeeland East boys basketball 2The inside work on both ends of the court is done by the Claerbaut twins – Nate (6-11), a game-changer defensively who averages 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks; and Brandon (6-5), who scores better than 10 points per game, along with averaging four rebounds and 3.4 assists. Many of those assists are to his brother as the pair possess a unique chemistry on the court, which they will take to Ferris State next year.

The point guard is 5-10 senior Adam Cassel, a Hope College football recruit, who brings the girth to a starting five known for its height and length.

Rounding out the Chix starting lineup is 6-2 senior Ethan Houghtaling – a throwback, three-sport athlete, who is the quarterback of the football team and the star pitcher on the baseball team (and committed to Western Michigan for the latter), but has no problem humbling himself and filling a critical supporting role on the hardcourt.

“Before almost every game, Ethan asks me: ‘Coach, what do you need me to do?’” said Zeeland East coach Jeff Carlson, a former standout himself at Holland and later Hope College. “I’m really blessed with this group. They are all phenomenal athletes, they are all competitors and they are all unselfish. That sure makes coaching a lot easier.”

Next up for the Chix is a Saturday District Final matchup with neighboring rival Holland West Ottawa, which went to overtime to down Hudsonville in Thursday’s opening game. Tipoff is 7 p.m.

Houghtaling is normally well into baseball season by now, but he has no problem at this point with leaving the bat and glove in the garage for a couple more games and, who knows, maybe a couple more weeks.

“This is the season we have been working toward since seventh grade,” explained Houghtaling, who had his typical workmanlike performance Thursday with six points and eight rebounds. “Even though we are unbeaten, our mentality is to go out every game and prove we are for real and to keep adding to it.”

He is savoring every moment, as his last three seasons have all been cut short or eliminated by COVID-19.

Zeeland East boys basketball 3The Chix finished 16-6 last basketball season, which was truncated during District week by the pandemic. Houghtaling’s junior baseball season never got started, and his senior football season ended abruptly with a 4-2 record when East was forced to forfeit its Division 3 District opener due to coronavirus cases in the program.

“I am so happy for these kids, that they have been able to have the type of season they’ve had,” said Carlson, who is in his second year as the Chix head coach and is assisted by Tyler Bartolacci. “They deserve it.”

Now the question becomes: How far can they go?

The Chix certainly put on a clinic Thursday, against a talented Zeeland West team which gave East its closest game of the season, a 44-39 victory back on Feb. 23. This time, the Chix put on the clamps defensively and got out and ran to a 19-3 lead after one quarter, extended it to 31-9 by halftime and cruised from there.

The only thing missing was the usual standing-room-only crowd of close to 3,000 fans when the two Zeeland schools meet. Carlson would love to have those crowds, but knows this team doesn’t need that to get pumped up.

The Chix are so focused and serious that Carlson often starts practices with a game of tag to try and lighten the mood.

The problem is, as Riemersma explains, even tag soon becomes ultra-competitive with this year’s team.

“It’s team-bonding stuff and supposed to be a little bit of fun before we get focused in on basketball,” said Riemersma. “But we all want to win everything we do, so it usually gets pretty intense, but I guess that’s a good thing.”

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) Zeeland East 6-10 senior center Nate Claerbaut, right, goes up for a clean blocked shot, while his twin brother, 6-5 senior forward Brandon Claerbaut, applies pressure from the other side during a game last season. (Middle) Zeeland East senior Trip Riemersma poses with the commemorative basketball he was presented after scoring his 1,000th varsity point in Thursday's 61-27 Division 1 District Semifinal win over rival Zeeland West. (Below) Zeeland East senior guard Ethan Houghtaling sizes up a 3-point shot. Houghtaling, who played quarterback in football for the Chix, is a three-sport athlete who will play baseball next year at Western Michigan University. (Top and below photos contributed; middle photo by Tom Kendra.)

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.)