Team-First Comets Charting Perfect Path

By Wes Morgan
Special for

February 6, 2018

When Coloma varsity boys basketball coach Paul Marfia was asked to dissect the Comets’ undefeated season up to this point, he said the bruises his players consider badges of honor tell most of the story.

The Comets, who are tied for 9th in The Associated Press’ Class B state rankings, may not be the most athletic or talented team on the west side of the state. But their tenacity, toughness, heart and unselfishness have propelled them to a 13-0 overall record and 8-0 mark in the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Lakeshore division.

The program hasn’t won a conference championship since 2004 and now is positioned end that drought, having already pulled off confidence-fortifying wins over SAC Valley powers Kalamazoo Christian (12-1) and Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep (12-2) after trailing the latter by as many as 16 in the third quarter.

This winter has been the culmination of five years of Marfia preaching that, in the words of Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, junior point guard Zach Goodline, who’s averaging 27 points per game this year and adding to the program’s career points record with every bucket, plays a particularly big part for the Comets.

“We know if we don’t play the way we should play, we can take a loss,” Goodline said. “But it’s nice finally winning a bunch of games.”

As do a host of others, including a core group of seven seniors, some of whom were on varsity in 2015-16 and experienced a five-win season. They endured some hard knocks.

“It’s a process; I’m an Italian and I grew up as a farmer. I know things take time, and it’s not done in a day,” said Marfia, who experienced a 13-9 first campaign at Coloma in 2013-14 with a solid senior class, though he started from scratch in Year 2. “I was actually finding kids in the hallway. ‘Hey, I heard you used to play in the seventh grade. Why don’t you be my power forward?’

“There wasn’t a culture there. In the past it was there. But it’s been a long time since then. There was a big dip because of the culture and understanding what it means to play basketball the right way and understanding what that commitment is. It’s starting to go in the right direction, and this group of seniors are the ones that are committed to that.”

It was only a couple years ago the Comets were hopelessly lost on the defensive end, sometimes showing as many as six different looks in a game in a desperate effort to find something effective.

Now Coloma sticks mostly to man-to-man and the basic principles of “attitude and effort,” holding opponents under 47 points per game.

Four-year varsity player Levi Wilkens is certainly committed, and he’s going to make sure everyone in a Coloma jersey is as well. Wilkens was asked to shoot less last year and focus on leading the team defensively. It took him a while to accept that role, he said, and now he revels in it.

“I think I’ve matured a lot more,” Wilkens said. “We’re going chapter by chapter. We’re on chapter 13. We don’t look ahead, and we focus on each team.”

“It’s awesome to see,” Marfia said. “Here’s a kid who was all-conference and only averaged 2.5 points per game. Levi is a kid who’s been a captain, a point guard and a defensive kid. I’ve never seen a kid score zero points in a game and yet control a game as much as he does.”

Just a few hours after being interviewed for this story, Wilkens left Monday’s game at Niles Brandywine in the first quarter with a broken nose and a gash that required 16 stitches.

“He’s a tough kid,” Marfia said of Wilkens after the Comets held on for a 73-65 victory. “He had a face for radio anyways. He’ll be back tougher and uglier than ever. He understands that’s what separates us from the other team.”

Seven players have scored in double figures this year for Coloma, proving they’re just as unrelenting on the offensive end of the floor. Goodline fouled out with a minute left against Brandywine after scoring 19 points. Junior forward Phillip Caldwell shouldered a bigger load and finished with a career-high 27. Prior to the contest, Caldwell was averaging eight points per game.

Sophomore forward Michael Dancer worked his way into the starting rotation and produced 72 rebounds, 15 blocks and 5.5 points per game prior to the matchup with Brandywine. Senior Robbie Schroeder is the team’s center and is averaging just a hair under 10 points per game with a disruptive presence on the defensive side.

“We’re focusing on the big goal and working toward one thing,” Schroeder said. “We’re not all good scorers like Zach, so we realize if we want to win, we have to do our part on the defensive end. That’s what we believe in.”

Senior Chris Brown has been an invaluable sixth man for the Comets, and fellow classmates Tevon Blazier, Brendan Lute, Willie Donald and Adam Hearn have helped reshape the culture.

“It’s been a long journey,” Hearn said. “I’ve been playing with some of these kids since third or fourth grade and have seen everybody grow. Coming together as one and being a solid team is amazing.”

“You have to have kids that understand what it means to be part of a team,” Marfia said. “I see that in these kids. They play the way you want them to.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Coloma's Robbie Schroeder puts up a shot in the post against Watervliet. (Middle) Leading scorer Zach Goodline elevates for a jumper for the Comets. (Photos courtesy of the Coloma athletic department.)

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.)