Undefeated Brimley Primed for Big Time

By John Vrancic
Special for MHSAA.com

February 8, 2019


BRIMLEY — Rankings are nice, but the Brimley boys are looking for more as they roll through this basketball season.

The Bays, ranked No. 1 statewide in Division 4 by The Associated Press, improved to 16-0 with a 72-46 triumph over St. Ignace on Tuesday.

Brimley’s run has continued a progression that saw the varsity finish 5-16 in 2014-15 and then add to its win total every season over the next three – going 20-5 and winning a District title last winter.

“Part of the reason for our success is team chemistry,” said 6-foot-3 junior guard Zach Gross. “We went undefeated from the fifth grade on. We’re excited about the ranking, but that only motivates us to work harder. We know there’s a target on our back. Everybody wants to beat the No. 1 team in the state.”

The Bays are well aware of the challenges in store for them during the postseason, where expectations will be high to match that top ranking.

The U.P. has enjoyed a wave of success in the smallest-school bracket especially this decade (the classification changed from Class D to Division 4 beginning this school year). North Central won three straight Class D titles from 2015-17 and also made the Semifinals in 2013. Dollar Bay made the Semifinals last season, following appearances as well by Eben Junction Superior Central in 2011, Carney-Nadeau in 2012 and Cedarville in 2014. Cedarville also made the Quarterfinals last season, losing to Dollar Bay, and has won six Regional titles over the last 10 years.

Brimley took a major step toward assuming a place among the elite, clinching the Eastern Upper Peninsula Conference title last week, outpacing Cedarville and Engadine after finishing second to the Trojans last season.

“Rudyard, Engadine and Cedarville have the strongest teams, which helps us get ready for the tournaments,” Gross said. “Rudyard has a very good defensive team, and Engadine has a run-and-gun offense. They (Engadine) have Andrew Blanchard, who’s a senior guard and a great athlete.”

Brimley posted an 89-78 victory at Rudyard on Friday. The Bays also defeated the Bulldogs 80-74 at home Dec. 13.

“Rudyard played a great game here,” said Brimley coach Joel Moore. “That was our closest game, although we had one guy injured. Another was sick and Marcus (Harris) was cramping up. Engadine was probably our toughest game (in a 79-67 victory Jan. 25). They match up with us pretty well. They can score in bunches.”

The Bays have shown on numerous occasions they also can score in bunches, which was evident in their 104-70 victory at Engadine on Dec. 6.

“The transition game is our strength,” said Harris, a 5-10 senior guard. “We have a lot of speed. We’re kind of an explosive team. We’re capable of putting up 90 points on any given night.”

Brimley is also aware of the possibility of teams taking the air out of the ball as DeTour attempted Nov. 30 when the Bays won 83-49.

“They tried to go with a delay offense,” said Harris. “We jumped on them early, then it was 13-13 after the first quarter. I think that prepares you a bit. There’s always a chance we could see that in the District.”

“If we see that in the District, I think we’ll be prepared for it,” 6-0 senior forward Hunter Lipponen added. “Our transition game has worked well. We don’t have the real big guy, so everybody has to be able to handle the ball. We have the ball handlers. We also have the speed, and we try to utilize that.”

A victory over Bay Mills Ojibwe Charter in the District opener Feb. 25 at Rudyard would set up a third meeting with Engadine two nights later. The District championship game is set for March 1.

“Ojibwe plays with a lot of pride and heart,” said Moore. “We can’t overlook anybody. Sometimes the hardest thing is to get out of the District because the teams are very familiar with each other. We have to stay humble and hungry. We can’t put much stock into the rankings.”

But the Bays can take confidence from what they’ve accomplished so far.

Brimley opened its season on a positive note, winning 73-49 at Cedarville.

“We hadn’t done that in about 15 years, which kind of set the tone,” Lipponen said. “Cedarville runs a 1-3-1 and 2-2-1 zone press and a half-court trap. You have to be able to make the right passes.”

Brimley visits Newberry tonight, and after Pickford for Parents Night on Feb. 15 hosts Harbor Springs Harbor Light Christian and travels to Sault Ste. Marie to close the regular season.

If the Bays win the District, they could potentially see Cedarville for the third time or Ski Valley Conference leader Pellston in the Regional. At that point, Brimley would be seeking its first Regional title since 1995, when it won its fourth in six seasons.

“Pellston is pretty good,” said Lipponen. “We saw them at team camp. They have a big guy underneath who has some very nice footwork.

“It’s very exciting. But we have to take it one game at a time.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Senior Tristen Lyons brings the ball up court during Brimley’s first game this season against Newberry, an 83-55 win Dec. 19. (Middle) Senior Dylan Carrick unloads a 3-point try against Superior Central in a 69-57 win Dec. 15. (Photos courtesy of the Brimley athletic department.)

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.)