U-D Jesuit Wins Matchup of Undefeated

March 25, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Detroit U-D Jesuit’s first trip to the Class A Semifinals in 2014 was filled with awe.

The second trip, last season, ended in disappointment. 

There was no longer awe Friday, and no less excitement – just a laser-like focus on taking the next step for the first time in program history, led by the best player to wear a Cubs uniform.

Senior guard Cassius Winston has played prominent roles in getting U-D Jesuit to the Breslin Center the last three seasons, and his 27 points and 12 rebounds were one of a few reasons the Cubs got past Macomb Dakota 72-51 in a matchup of undefeated teams considered the best in Class A heading into the postseason.

“Like I’ve said before, this is the final to my high school career, and I don’t think I’ve had a successful high school career unless we can win a state championship,” Winston said. “It means the world to finally get over that hump. We came in two years expecting to win it and came up short. Now we made it past that hump to make it to Saturday, so we’ve got to finish it off.”

The Cubs (27-0) will face North Farmington in Saturday’s noon Class A Final.

U-D Jesuit and Dakota were ranked 1 and 2, respectively, by The Associated Press at the end of the regular season, and both were playing to make an MHSAA Final for the first time. Dakota also was riding a perfect run, with the loss Friday ending its season at 26-1.

The Cubs’ 2014 run ended with a 10-point Semifinal loss to eventual runner-up Bloomfield Hills. Last winter, U-D Jesuit edged a point closer, losing by nine to eventual champion Detroit Western International. 

The Quarterfinal win over No. 4 Ypsilanti Community on Tuesday to make this third straight trip definitely was worth celebrating. But Cubs coach Pat Donnelly said hoots and hollers were replaced by a quieter focus that showed him again that his players were all business.

“We did discuss the last two years and the feeling that we had leaving here Friday afternoon, and we talked about that throughout the season,” Donnelly said. “That allowed us to win the Quarterfinal and be very focused walking off the floor. … I think you saw the result of that today.”

It was quickly apparent during an 18-3 run that began 2:41 into the game and ended 2:28 into the second quarter with U-D Jesuit up 25-9. The lead grew to as many as 25 points as the Cubs also held Dakota to its second-fewest in a game this season.

The more sizable U-D Jesuit outrebounded the Cougars 39-24 and also shot 58 percent from the floor to Dakota’s 35 percent success rate, which got off to a cool 19-percent first-half start.

Winston, who will next play at Michigan State and was named the state's Mr. Basketball on Monday, made 8 of 16 shots from the floor in front of a Breslin crowd that included a full lower bowl and a number of fans in the upper bowl as well.

“That was probably the hypest game I ever played in,” Dakota junior Jermaine Jackson said. “Cassius is a great player. Mr. Basketball coming in, that’s a tough task.” 

Junior Gregory Eboigbodin added 13 points and 18 rebounds for U-D Jesuit. Senior guards Steven Marshall and Tavin Allison led four Dakota players in double figures with 13 points apiece, and Jackson and sophomore Thomas Kithier each scored 12. Kithier also had nine rebounds and four assists.

Donnelly said he told Dakota coach Paul Tocco after not to let a Breslin loss take anything away from an excellent season, as the Cougars were now experiencing what the Cubs had experienced twice before.

“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we’ve very proud of the season we had,” Tocco said. “I know the experience of losing to Clarkston in the Regional championship last year was a big-time motivator for us to move beyond that point. It motivated our entire program. And we took another step, two steps, beyond that this year.

"To get here, I’m not going to lie – it’s a lot of fun. We tried to treat it as a business-type trip. We weren’t just happy to be here. We just got outplayed tonight.”

Click for the full box score.

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

PHOTOS: (Top) U-D Jesuit’s Ike Eke (1) launches a shot over the outstretched hand of Macomb Dakota’s Thomas Kithier. (Middle) Dakota’s Jermaine Jackson (1) works to get past U-D Jesuit’s Elijah Collins.

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.)