Tiger Pride Returns at Muskegon Heights

February 3, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

It’s hard to overstate the importance of basketball to a community like Muskegon Heights.

On one hand, a bunch of kids playing a game in a gym seems like a low priority, almost trivial in a town whose violent crime rates and percentage of residents living in poverty are among the highest in Michigan.

But on the other hand, the “Tiger Pride” that is on display each time Heights alumnus Dell Stewart and his team of 13 players take the court – and the returning crowd of community members who are getting back on the bandwagon as the wins continue to pile up – could provide the spark to create real change in this beleaguered West Michigan town.

“Basketball has always been a source of pride in this community,” said Stewart, a 1989 Muskegon Heights graduate, who is in his fourth year as the Tigers’ head coach.

“Basketball and all sports almost ended here completely four years ago, but we weathered the storm. We’re back. And we want to be a source of hope and pride.”

The school is now known as the Muskegon Heights Academy, a public charter school which replaced the debt-ridden Heights district in 2012, but the basketball standards are as high as they have ever been in a community which boasts six MHSAA championships – 1954, 1956, 1957, 1974, 1978 and 1979.

Heights has its sights set on another banner after taking its high-energy show on the road Saturday night and improving to 10-1 with a convincing 55-45 victory over perennial power and longtime rival Benton Harbor, which was ranked No. 10 in the state in Class B.

The Tigers beat the “downstate Tigers” on Saturday with their trademark full-court pressure defense and multiple offensive weapons – and now should finally get a spot in the Top 10 of this week’s Class C Associated Press state poll.

Underclassmen led the way in Heights’ big win, with junior point guard Antoine Jones scoring 18 points and junior Serinus Daniels and sophomore DeCarri Brown each grabbing 10 rebounds.

The energy of the team starts with the backcourt trio of Jones and his twin brother, Anthony, and senior captain Anthony Gordon. The starters inside are 6-foot-3 sophomore center Kieshon Watson and senior forward Deondre Wilson, but Daniels (a 6-6 junior) and Brown also see plenty of minutes.

“The thing I like about this team is that every game it seems like we have a different leading scorer,” said Stewart, who is assisted on the Tigers’ bench by his younger brother, Terry, a sharpshooter on the 1993 Heights team that lost to Saginaw Buena Vista in the Class B championship game. “We don’t have a lot of size, but we make up for that in different ways. We have the pieces of the puzzle to make a run.”

The win at Benton Harbor was just the latest impressive road victory for the Tigers, who turned some heads with big tournament wins in December over Southfield at Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills and Lansing Sexton at Battle Creek Central. Heights also handed host Kalamazoo Phoenix its first loss on Jan. 22.

Fans at home are starting to take notice – and come back.

When “the storm” Stewart referred to made landfall in 2012, a state-appointed emergency manager had taken over and there was uncertainty about whether the district would exist for the upcoming school year, let alone have a sports program.

That uncertainty led coach Keith Guy and high-profile players such as DeShaun Thrower (the state’s Mr. Basketball in 2014) and Joeviair Kennedy (now playing at Western Michigan University) to go to neighboring Muskegon High School – and many longtime Heights fans went with them. Soon, the traditional football school was now the place to be for basketball as well, as Thrower and Kennedy were joined by 6-9 Deyonta Davis (now at Michigan State) for an undefeated season and Class A championship in 2014.

Almost forgotten was the county’s traditional basketball power, Muskegon Heights.

Amidst all the new-found Big Reds’ basketball hoopla, Heights basketball picked up the pieces. With longtime administrators Glen Metcalf (athletic director) and Jerry Harris (faculty manager) leading the way, Heights was able to lure Stewart away from his job as head coach at Reeths-Puffer and back home to be head basketball coach and dean of students. His first order of business was to convince kids that they did not need to transfer to find basketball success.

Stewart’s words were backed up by results in 2014, when the Tigers made a run all the way to the Class C Semifinals at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, where they lost to Pewamo-Westphalia.

“I looked up in the stands and saw some of the old fans coming back and even people I hadn’t seen in 15 years, people who were starving to be part of something positive in Muskegon Heights,” said Stewart.

The problem has been that for every step up, there have been two steps back in terms of the Heights’ image.

One month after the Tigers made it to the Breslin in 2014, starting center Marquis Gresham was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Last fall, Heights was back in the news for the wrong reasons, when a home football game against Muskegon Catholic Central was cancelled after a shooting earlier that day.

Those incidents weigh heavy on all of the town’s residents, but they seem 1,000 miles away, at least briefly, when the Tigers work their magic on the basketball court.

One of those Tigers having plenty of fun is junior forward Keshawn Gresham, Marquis’s little brother, who is one of 10 underclassmen on the Tigers’ 13-player varsity roster.

As he laughs and jokes with his teammates, as a big throng of community residents cheer on in support, one fact is apparent:

Basketball is more than just a game in Muskegon Heights.

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) Muskegon Heights junior point guard Antoine Jones drives up the court during a 70-47 win at Muskegon Catholic Central on Jan. 26. (Middle) Muskegon Heights coach Dell Stewart congratulates junior forward Serinus Daniels after a block on one end and a bucket on the other during the win over MCC. (Below) Muskegon Heights' Joe Moore (right) and Serinus Daniels (left) defend Muskegon Catholic's Christian Martinez. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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 MHSAA.com 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.)