Undefeated Mio Poised to Build on Bolt Nation's Proud Hoops Tradition

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

January 20, 2023

Wins, losses and championships may not be what this year’s Mio boys basketball players leave at the top of their footprint when they’re done.

But they certainly could.

“I’m proud to say these boys have gotten many compliments throughout the last couple of seasons as to how they conduct themselves and represent our basketball program, one another, our school, and our community both on — and off — the court,” said head coach Ty McGregor. “This group’s legacy will be more about their high character than records and titles.”

McGregor knows about leaving a legacy. He scored 32 points to lead the Thunderbolts to the 1989 Class D championship. His scoring in the 78-67 deciding win over Beal City allowed Mio to cap a perfect 28-0 season.

He also knows the legacy, perhaps better than most, of Michigan’s all-time boys career scoring leader, Jay Smith, who led Mio to the 1989 Semifinals and a 24-2 record. Smith and McGregor are brothers-in-law. 

Smith, who set the bar while playing before the 3-point line was added to Michigan high school basketball, went on to play and coach at the college level.  Smith recently returned to the University of Michigan basketball program as the director of player personnel and development under Juwan Howard.

McGregor went on to play professionally in Europe and coach with Smith at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. He also squeezed in two years coaching the Thunderbolts before the college coaching and returning to Mio in 2017.

Today’s Thunderbolts leadership — seniors Austin Fox, Gage Long, Nathan Hurst — have helped Mio to an unbeaten start. 

They also have the Thunderbolts starting to think of capturing a conference title that has eluded them for 13 years.

“We only have 10 total boys in our high school basketball family, so it’s vital all lead and take ownership,” McGregor said. “Our kids show up in the classroom basketball court, so right there is 80 percent of being successful. 

Nathan Hurst (3) looks for an open teammate.“We talk about ‘real-life stuff’ a ton, and a big part of what we’re about is always leaving places better than when we found them,” McGregor continued. “These three seniors will most definitely leave our program a better place when their time here is complete, which makes a highly competitive, overly intense, passionate coach like myself smile!”

Fox, averaging 16.4 points per game, Long at 12.4, and Hurst at 10, are the team’s leading scorers. Long leads the team in rebounding, and Fox tops the steal list.

Sophomore Zeke Morris is right behind the seniors in scoring, rebounding, and steals. Junior Hunter Perez leads the team in assists.

Any and all five Thunderbolts on the court at any moment can drive the team’s success, according to McGregor. 

“I’ve stated all along, we don’t have a superstar or superstars; we do things by committee,” noted McGregor. “In order for us to be successful in any way, ‘by committee’ is how it has to be done. 

“We have five players that on any given night can get us double-digit scoring,” he went on. “Austin Fox, Gage Long and Nathan Hurst clearly do a great job with leadership, but everyone has taken ownership of this team.”

Defending is the team’s top priority, McGregor is quick to point out. His team is currently holding opponents to just 25 points per game.

“We know there will be nights where we will really shoot it in and nights where we can’t throw it in the ocean,” he said. “That’s basketball, but we should never have off nights at the defensive end — that’s all about effort, focus. 

“We are holding true to our priorities thus far,” he continued. “This type of defensive success widens our margin for error in other areas that we don’t have as much control over.”

What the Thunderbolts can control is attitude and effort, and MacGregor views that as the key to their success so far: “Our kids’ attitude and effort have been off the charts. It’s vital we always stay on top of those things.”

The postseason is already on the minds of the Thunderbolts, McGregor acknowledged.

“The postseason is clearly the most important part of the season in our minds,” McGregor said. “We want to continue to hold each other accountable and make daily deposits on preparation, commitment, effort, and attitude, which we hope will pay dividends in March.”

Mio’s style of play may not turn heads, but McGregor believes it gets the job done.

Austin Fox (5) intercepts a pass into the lane. “Unfortunately for our kids and Bolt Nation, their head coach is very black-and-white — he’s not into ‘Top 10’ highlights,” McGregor said. “We play a very fundamental, disciplined style of hoops, doing our best to not over complicate things. 

“We’re more about eliminating mistakes than playing high-risk hoops.”

McGregor’s wife Kristi took over coaching the Mio girls basketball program this season. Mio didn’t have enough players last year to field a girls team.

All of the girls who hoped to play last year still have eligibility – and could end up with the top seed in their District.

Coaching at the same school as his wife has been a spectacular experience, the boys coach said. And, it gives them something else to argue about, Ty McGregor joked.

“It is absolutely awesome to have the opportunity to teach the game of life, the game of hoops, and be a part of Bolt Nation alongside my wife, Kristi,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to discuss, analyze, and assist one another, all in hopes of teaching kids in our small community to dream big, work hard, and commit to something bigger than themselves.”

The Thunderbolt boys, 7-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Dipper portion of the North Star League, will resume play Tuesday at Posen.  

“I don’t look at or take much stock in an unbeaten record this early in the season,” McGregor said. “We don’t even discuss it, as we are more concerned with our daily approach to be better than we were the day/game before.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Mio’s Gage Long (24) defends during a 57-17 win over Rogers City on Tuesday. (Middle) Nathan Hurst (3) looks for an open teammate. (Below) Austin Fox (5) intercepts a pass into the lane. (Photos by Jessi Fox.)

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.)