Thanks in Part to Super Subs, Balanced Lincoln Set to Make Finals Debut

By Steve Vedder
Special for

March 15, 2024

EAST LANSING – It may be that Warren Lincoln is short on star power.

But success certainly isn't lacking.

In fact, the Abes' latest includes the chance to play in their first state championship game after surging to a 60-48 win over Flint Powers Catholic in Friday's first Division 2 Semifinal at the Breslin Center.

Warren Lincoln does have four players averaging more than nine points per game. But coach Wydell Henry said it's hard to single out a particular player as a bona fide star.

"Who is our superstar? We don't have one," said Wydell, whose team advanced to Saturday's 6:45 p.m. finale. "Sometimes a star shines through, but today it was the bench."

How impressive was the bench? Warren Lincoln's subs outscored Powers’ 27-1, with a handful of non-starters on the floor for a devastating 19-7 run over 10 minutes from the last minute of the first quarter to the 7:10 mark of the third.

It's a bench which has evolved during the season, junior guard Markus Blackwell said. Four months ago, during the opening weeks of practice, there were some roles which were up in the air. But Blackwell said those roles were quickly defined, and success followed.

"We knew in the summer we were going to have depth," said Blackwell, who led the Abes with 20 points. "We just needed to get better and learn to make shots. Everyone can score, everyone can make their shots. That's what makes it a lot of fun."

Jamari Culver (23) looks for an opening with Cull attempting to wall off his path. Warren Lincoln (23-4) trailed by as much as 17-9 with 54 seconds left in the first quarter. But the Abes tied the game 20-20 on a 3-pointer by Christopher Morgan with 5:15 left in the half, then outscored Powers 17-6 in the third quarter.

The closest Powers came after that was 47-40 with five minutes left in the game, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Blackwell clinched the win.

Javontae Ross led Powers (22-6) with 16 points, and Connor Kelly added 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Wydell said his team goes nine deep and considering the returning experience this season, he was expecting Lincoln to be a factor. The Abes finished 9-1 to claim the Macomb Area Conference White title, and all four its losses this season were to strong Division 1 teams.

"I knew we had eight back and that was going to be deep enough," he said. "I didn't know who, but we have guys who work hard. We just needed to put it together.”

Defensively, Warren Lincoln held Powers to just 40.8-percent (20 of 49) shooting from the field. The Chargers were slowed by 14 turnovers, many when it seemed they could make a run.

"Offensively, we got a little bogged down today; we couldn't find any rhythm. They scouted us well. It wasn't any particular player, we just couldn't find the hoop," Powers coach Zach Collins said. "They definitely have depth, they go about nine deep and they're huge. They go 6-5, 6-6 and can roll in a lot of guys. They can roll in a lot of guys who understand their scheme. We knew that was something we'd have to contend with."

Wydell said the game-clinching run came after a timeout in which he told the players ignore any pressure.

"We called a timeout, got together and just told the kids to relax," he said. "Hopefully it would work because we really didn't have any answers. We just had to settle down and play the right way."

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Warren Lincoln’s Markus Blackwell (2) cuts between Flint Powers Catholic defenders Grant Garman (2) and Dempsey Cull (35) during Friday’s Division 2 Semifinal. (Middle) Jamari Culver (23) looks for an opening with Cull attempting to wall off his path. (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.)