Tri-Captains Pace Striving Spring Lake

February 8, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Things are looking up for the Spring Lake boys basketball team.

The Lakers have raised the bar in recent years, making their mark on the statewide level with two appearances in the MHSAA Class B Quarterfinals over the last three seasons.

This winter, led by a trio of tall, versatile and extremely intelligent captains in Sam Johnson (6-foot-8), Griffin Lorimer (6-4) and Jack VanWingen (6-2), Spring Lake has stepped up its schedule and its game in its quest to get back to the quarters – and perhaps further.

“When it gets to tournament time, it comes down to playing your best basketball of the year and making a run,” said Johnson, who scored a game-high 16 points on Wednesday as Spring Lake doubled up host Sparta, 50-25, for an Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue win.

“A big key in March is experience and leadership, and we definitely have plenty of that.”

Spring Lake (12-3, 6-2 in the O-K Blue), which hosts Allendale on Friday night in another conference game, showed it was going to be a force to be reckoned with early this year when it posted back-to-back tight wins over a pair of bigger schools in Rockford (48-46) and rival Grand Haven (69-66 in double overtime).

Bill Core, in his 17th year as Spring Lake’s head coach, said that in addition to good height on the front line, this may also be the smartest team he’s ever coached. Core said that intelligence helps this team make adjustments on the fly and smart decisions when the game is on the line.

“Those three captains are all 4.0 kids, and they’re great role models,” said Core, who is assisted by Randy White. “They have high basketball IQs, and I trust them to make decisions and figure things out.”

Johnson is the player who draws the most attention from opposing teams at 6-8, with the ability to post up and step out and knock down mid-range jump shots.

Johnson, who plans to play basketball next year at Claremont McKenna College in California, leads the Lakers with 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. And don’t try to hack him and send him to the free-throw line. Johnson is shooting a team-best 80 percent on free throws.

The most versatile of the three captains is Lorimer, who is hard to miss with his curly blonde hair and red shoes. He creates matchup problems with his inside-outside game, and currently averages 10 points and seven rebounds per contest.

Johnson and Lorimer are a 1-2 punch up front that most teams can’t match.

“We know one of the strengths of this team is that we’re deep in the post, and that makes it hard for teams to just focus on one guy,” explained Lorimer. “It’s good to have that balance. Plus, we’ve played together so long that we just know where the other guys are going to be.”

Lorimer’s versatility was perhaps best displayed last year at team camp in Rockford, where he was assigned to guard one of the state’s best big men in 6-9 Xavier Tillman (now at Michigan State) one day, then came back the next day and had to check standout guard Matt Beachler (now at Central Michigan).

But the most important of Spring Lake’s three captains might be VanWingen, a slasher who is the team’s best at breaking down defenses. VanWingen is adept at finding Johnson and Lorimer inside as well as kicking the ball back out to the arc to shooters Ben Arteaga, Kyle Wiersma and sophomore Cayden Ball.

“I think we’re a very well-balanced team,” said VanWingen, the top returning scorer off last year’s who is currently averaging 11.2 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. “Our big guys get a lot of attention, but we also have guards who can shoot it. It’s important that we trust each other and know that everyone is going to do their job.”

Spring Lake’s senior trio has been too much for almost everybody to handle, with the main exception being conference rival and possible Regional opponent Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which is ranked No. 6 in Class B.

The two teams met on Jan. 5 at Spring Lake in a much-anticipated showdown, but the Cougars swarmed the hosts in a lopsided 80-39 victory. The Lakers were much more competitive when the two teams played last week in Grand Rapids, but still lost, 59-40.

“We improved by 22 points the second game, and if we improve by another 22 points in the next game, we’ll win by three,” quipped Core, who knows his team will be a huge underdog if it’s fortunate enough to win the District it is hosting next month and possibly get another shot at GRCC in the Class B Regional opener at Grand Rapids West Catholic.

The Lakers can gain confidence by looking back to last year, when they lost to GR Catholic twice during the regular season, then stunned the Cougars in the Regional championship game. That win put Spring Lake in the Quarterfinals for the second time in three years, after it made a surprise run to the school’s first-ever boys basketball Quarterfinals appearance in 2015.

Lorimer believes this year’s team has the potential to make it three Quarterfinal appearances in four years.

“I really do think we have another level we haven’t reached yet,” said Lorimer, who plans to play next year at Trine University in Angola, Ind. “We may have for short stretches, but we haven’t strung it together for a whole game. That’s what we’re working on.”

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) Spring Lake senior Griffin Lorimer battles along the baseline in a victory earlier this season against Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Middle) Spring Lake senior Jack VanWingen glides in for a bucket in a victory over Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Below) Spring Lake senior Sam Johnson goes up for a shot during the Lakers' thrilling double-overtime win over neighboring rival Grand Haven earlier this season. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)