Thumb Rivals Honor Connor 'One Last Time'

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

February 28, 2017

Jay Burton said one of his biggest fears after his son Connor passed away in 2009 was that he would be forgotten.

But eight years after his death, the memory of Connor Burton is as strong as ever in Marlette and Brown City, the two communities he managed to make a big impact on during his 10 years on Earth.

“Any parent that’s lost a child, one of the biggest fears is that your child will be forgotten,” Jay Burton said. “They never are, but that’s any parent’s fear. But he’ll be a part of this community for the rest of our lives.”

This past Friday, the two schools met in Marlette for the eighth and final Team Connor Classic, a game that has celebrated Connor’s life since the year after it ended. On this night, Marlette came away with a 49-40 victory, winning the game for the eighth straight time in what would have been Connor’s senior year.

“It’s a good time to call it quits,” Jay Burton said.

Connor’s life

On Thursday, April 16, 2009, Connor went to his gymnastics and baseball practices before shooting baskets outside his house until the sun set and he could no longer see the hoop.

It was a typical day for the energetic 10-year-old, who was described by many as a gym rat and a lover of all sports.

“Whatever sport was in season, he would be ready to play,” said Connor’s uncle Tony Burton, Brown City’s athletic director and former boys basketball coach. “During the winter, basketball was something that was a high priority with him. Obviously, he got taken from us too soon, but he sure loved sports.”

He was good at them, too. His friend Hunter Kelly, now a senior on Marlette’s boys basketball team, said Connor was a better basketball player than most of their friends when they were young.

In the Thumb, Burtons and basketball are synonymous, and Connor seemed poised to be the next in that line – even if he was coming through the Marlette program and not the Brown City one his uncle was leading and for which his cousins had starred. Connor was even a manager, along with his cousin Caleb Muxlow (who is a senior on this year’s Brown City team), for his uncle’s team.

On Friday, April 17, 2009, Connor, who it would be found suffered from Long QT – a heart rhythm disorder – passed away less than 24 hours after shooting his last shot.

“Basically the electrical system in the heart, which tells it to beat, his wasn’t running correctly,” Jay Burton said. “The thing about it was, you would have never known. … I went (into Connor’s room that morning) and the only weird thing he said to me was, ‘Dad, why did you open the door so fast?’

“I didn’t think anything of it, I flicked his light on, and when I came back he hadn’t made it out of bed. He had cardiac arrest.”

A tradition is born

The following basketball season, the Team Connor Classic was born, and the two communities that Connor loved showed their love for him. There were tributes and tears, and a great basketball rivalry was all of a sudden elevated to another level.

“It’s always been a good game between Brown City and Marlette,” Tony Burton said. “We border each other, we’re in the same county, so it’s usually a pretty good game when we play, regardless of records. It means a lot, and for both teams when we play each other, we want to win. But when the game’s over we still have our friendships and our associations with each other.”

While they compete for bragging rights, and often for Greater Thumb Conference East championships, Marlette and Brown City actually have a long history of coming together for good causes.

“Us and Marlette, we have a great relationship,” Brown City High School principal Neil Kohler said. “We do the pink out game in football every other year at our place, we do the Team Connor game. We did a basketball game last year where both teams gathered water for the Flint crisis. So, it’s probably our biggest rival, but also our biggest partnership. When they came to our place about three weeks ago our local rotary did a pancake dinner and had about 400 people come in from Marlette hospice to raise money. The two communities really come together.”

The Team Connor game has a different feeling than most tribute games because of its unique connection of the family to two tight-knit communities.

That was apparent in the latest edition, as Connor’s family – his father, his mother Sue, and his sisters Lindsey and Annie – were given a signed basketball from the Brown City community, and a bouquet of flowers and a blanket tiled with memories from all eight Team Connor Classics from the Marlette community. After the game, the family handed out medals to each player on both teams, receiving from them many long, heartfelt hugs.

It’s not easy for the family, especially in a year when Connor would have been the one on the court with his classmates enjoying a season that has seen the Red Raiders go 18-1 and clinch the GTC East title.

“This is only the second game I’ve watched the Marlette boys play (this season),” Jay Burton said. “I can’t watch them. I see Hunter Kelly; the kid stands a foot taller than me. What would Connor have been? He’s the 10-year-old in front of me and all of his friends are 18 getting ready to graduate high school.

“Caleb Muxlow, his cousin who plays for Brown City, I can go watch simply because he’s family. But this is only the second time I’ve seen (Marlette) play. It just hurts too much.”

Each team came out for warm-ups in the same Team Connor shirts, which combined the green of Brown City and the red of Marlette, and read “One Last Time.” They sat on the court before the game to watch the presentations and a slideshow of photos from Connor’s life and Team Connor Classics past, and stood with one another during the national anthem.

“I think this one was a special night mainly because these were his classmates,” Marlette coach Chris Storm said. “The rivalry has gotten stronger and stronger between us. It was there because of the league before, but it adds a lot of pressure to both teams and you could see that in the game.

“But it means a lot to see how many people come out for the event. The pastor comes back; he’s been out of the area for three years. It’s a great environment for kids to play high school basketball. It’s a District or a Regional feel almost on a regular-season night.”

As the game tipped off, Marlette took the court with four players. It’s a newer, but impactful tradition that was added in the years Connor would have been playing in the game.

“It was quite a surprise (the first year),” Jay Burton said.

It’s a sign that Connor is certainly not forgotten, and while the Team Connor Classic may be going away, anyone who played in one, coached one or simply attended one, will never forget it.

“It means that we’re remembering a great kid that would have given a lot more to his community if he had more time,” Kelly said. “It shows that us as a senior class, the way we represent ourselves as a team and a community, is reflecting who he was. It means a lot because he would have been a senior this year, he probably would have been playing with us. He was better than me, he was better than a lot of these kids, so he probably would have been starting, too.

“So it means a lot to play in remembrance of him, because he’s missing out on all these memories.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Annie Burton, Connor Burton’s younger sister, presents Marlette boys basketball coach Chris Storm with the “Team Connor Classic” trophy after Friday’s game. (Middle) Hunter Kelly hugs Connor’s father Jay Burton as the family welcomes both teams' players. (Below) The game program from the night celebrated Connor Burton’s life and legacy. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)

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.)