By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
STOCKBRIDGE – The new coach had won a lot of games. He must know what he’s doing, Mason Gee-Montgomery figured.
And that’s all he knew about Randy Swoverland when the latter took over Stockbridge’s boys basketball program two years ago.
But by the end of their first summer workout, Gee-Montgomery realized how hard the Panthers would be working that winter. And although the team finished only 8-13 that first season of 2014-15 (solid, actually, considering the team returned only one player with varsity experience), the now-junior point guard recognized his coach was putting the team in position to win – as long as he and his teammates held to what Swoverland was teaching them, and despite the fact some classmates didn’t stick around to help.
“It’s definitely a lot different than any coach we’ve had,” Gee-Montgomery said. “He takes the intensity to another level, and he expects things done a certain way. And if you don’t get them done that way, he’ll let you know.
“He definitely holds us accountable for the way we play, and I think that style of coaching suits the team we have because we hold each other accountable and he holds us accountable for ourselves. It just makes us play at another level.”
He could’ve been speaking for many of the teams Swoverland has led over the last four decades. And many of those players have been on the coach’s mind since his 400th career win Jan. 19, a 49-47 Stockbridge victory over Lansing Christian.
Swoverland has coached basketball at nine high schools over 37 years, building a record of 402-332. He also coached two seasons of boys and girls tennis, three of football and two seasons of men’s basketball at Adrian College since starting his coaching career in the fall of 1977 at Greenville High.
“When I got the win, I was happy. My guys were excited for me. But I also think back to all of the guys I coached in the 70s, 80s, 90s; they’re as much a part of it as what we’re certainly doing right now,” Swoverland said. “My thoughts and memories go all the way back to all of those teams.”
Although most in his new school’s community probably weren’t familiar with the past successes, Swoverland wasn’t exactly a stranger in a strange land when he picked up the milestone win on his newest team’s home court – Stockbridge is only 17 miles from Dexter, where he lives, has a son in high school and led teams to 245 of those victories.
He certainly has left an imprint on communities all over the Lower Peninsula and Ohio border, with 11 stops combined at those nine high schools and one college.
Stops along the way
Swoverland coached boys and girls tennis and also served as a boys basketball assistant at Greenville after finishing a four-year basketball career at Adrian College, where he was a captain as a senior. After Greenville came his first head coaching job, for a season at Edmore (now Blanchard) Montabella. He spent 1979-80 coaching Deckerville’s boys before heading back to Adrian College as an assistant men’s basketball coach; the head coach got fired and he lost his job there two years in. At the same time, Swoverland had been teaching and coaching football at Evergreen High School in Metamora, Ohio, and took over the girls basketball program there for one season. (He taught mathematics for 38 years total, retiring from the classroom after the 2013-14 school year.)
Swoverland moved on to coach Hudson’s boys basketball varsity from 1983-91, leading the Tigers to a league championship in 1989, a District title in 1991 and a 102-72 record. Then came his first tenure at Dexter from 1992-2001 – his teams finished a combined 131-90 with four league and four District titles and posted a 22-2 record in 1997-98. A need for something new led him to Adrian High School for three seasons from 2002-04 – and realizing Dexter was a better fit led him back to coach the Dreadnaughts from 2005-13, during which time they finished 114-90 and won two District titles.
Swoverland then took 2013-14 off from coaching – and missed it too much. He applied for and received the Stockbridge job that spring, taking over for Joe Wenzel, who also was the school’s athletic director and had coached in the district 11 seasons and the varsity during his last two.
The Panthers finished last winter with four losses over their final five games, but a combined eight points from finishing 12-9 instead. They also handed one of only two league losses to eventual Greater Lansing Activities Conference champion Lake Odessa Lakewood. This winter, the varsity has only nine players – but also nine wins, off to a 9-2 start and tied for second in the GLAC with a championship over holiday break at the Parma Western Holiday Hoops tournament.
“His level of consistency with the kids (impresses me); he’s very organized. Clearly he’s been doing it for a long time, so that helps with areas like that,” Wenzel said. “He has high expectations for the kids, and he holds them to it, and they rise to the occasion.”
But Swoverland gives them that opportunity to rise as well.
Dexter girls basketball coach and athletic director Mike Bavineau got his high school coaching start assisting Swoverland and worked with and around him for more than 20 years, getting a first-hand look at the strategist in action.
“I loved being on the sidelines with him. I watched him develop a system of play that always seemed to maximize his team’s ability,” Bavineau said. “The players may have never known it, but he is such a strategist that he will find a way to put you in the right place at the right time. Dexter and I were very fortunate to have him as a mentor and as a coach.
“You do not find many people who are (more) committed to his players and his program than Coach. I have the utmost respect for him as a coach and a friend.”
The branches of Swoverland’s coaching tree stretch broadly, considering both those who played for and coached under him and also those he’s affected during 31 years running the well-attended summer team camps at Adrian College and Siena Heights University.
His lessons through the years and many stops boil down to a few key points:
He teaches players to compete not against the opponent, but against their own potential – and measure against that, win or lose.
He emphasizes a unified front and working within the group, even when disagreeing with some of the decisions or direction – players aren’t allowed to stick out by wearing things like headbands with their uniforms, and his system isn’t built to create stars on the court, as all five starters this season average between eight and 13 points per game.
Finally, there are the life lessons he hopes they take with them like commitment and hard work – the ones he still hears about from former players when they’ve figured out what he meant years later.
“Coach has the best basketball mind I have encountered in 20 years of coaching. (And) his value system is beyond reproach,” said Brooklyn Columbia Central boys hoops coach Jason Rychener, who played for Swoverland at Hudson in 1989-90 and 1990-91 and coached under him at Dexter from 1995-2005. “I find myself still using the W.W.C.D (What would Coach do?) approach to issues that arise in my own program. In my view, he reached ‘legend’ status long before his 400th win.”
“Kids are still kids. They still want to play basketball. They still want to get something out of it,” Swoverland reflected. “You’re still teaching them life lessons. All of that stuff carries over, whether you’re coaching a Class B team or a Class A team.”
Making another impact
Stockbridge’s most notable sports success of late came on the football field over the last two seasons, as Gee-Montgomery – also a quarterback – set or tied three MHSAA passing records this fall with junior receiver/shooting guard Kolby Canfield hauling in 90 of those tosses and both in position to finish with some of the flashiest career numbers in this state’s history.
The boys basketball program, meanwhile, was coming off four straight sub-.500 seasons when Swoverland was hired and didn’t quite seem like a destination for a coach climbing toward 400 victories.
But he got a lay of the land both from Katherine Kuzma, the girls soccer coach and a former student of his at Dexter, and Josh Nichols, a teacher and former coach at the school who played at the University of Minnesota. Swoverland came away with an impression that Stockbridge athletes were competitive and would work hard, and the scenario has been similar to when he was at Hudson and also had a number of three-sport athletes while coaching in more of a football-type town. He also had a team of only nine players for a season with the Tigers, and has used all of that past experience during this one. He also brought along assistant Rick Weaver, who played for him at Dexter in 1998-99 and 1999-2000.
The biggest challenge has been getting a new school’s athletes to buy in to his “old-fashioned” style which emphasizes man-to-man defense and shot selection, and he’s working to get more offseason buy-in as well so he can help develop their skills. His system is based in large part on conversations with hundreds of coaches over the years, and Swoverland recalls specifically when his Hudson and Dexter teams hit a groove where their experience and execution resulted in wins over more talented opponents. Stockbridge isn’t there yet, but it’s moving in the right direction.
But not during the first half Tuesday. The Panthers were struggling against Jackson Northwest, playing below their potential, and Swoverland let them know – although he didn’t have to say a word. A look his players have come to recognize said it all.
Stockbridge pulled away for a 51-41 win.
“Last year we struggled with some of the things he had us doing, but we returned almost everybody and we’re all more familiar with the system and what he expects of us,” Gee-Montgomery said. “Winning makes everything better, and when we all play well, and we get praise from him, that’s when it feels really good."
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTO: Stockbridge boys basketball coach Randy Swoverland huddles with his players during a break in the action this season. (Photo courtesy of Frazzini Photography.)
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)