Unity Adds Hoops to 2018-19 Trophy Run

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

March 16, 2019

EAST LANSING – Noah Wiswary answered quickly when asked Saturday night if he had planned on winning multiple MHSAA championships during his senior season. 

“No,” the Hudsonville Unity Christian guard said shaking his head. “Not at all. When we started football, we were like, ‘Let’s get a winning record.’ When we started basketball, it was like, ‘Let’s win Districts again.’ Then we won Regionals, and it was like, ‘All right, let’s do this again.’” 

Wiswary – who also played on the Crusaders’ Division 5 champion football team – scored 17 points to lead Unity Christian to a 58-55 win against River Rouge in the Division 2 Boys Basketball Final.  

He’s one of seven players on the Crusaders roster who played on an MHSAA championship team in the fall, as the Crusaders also won the Division 3 soccer title. So while Saturday’s win gave the Crusaders their first basketball title, being in championship games was nothing new to many of the players. 

“Being in the football one, we knew we just had to come out and play hard right away, and that’s what we did tonight,” Unity Christian senior T.J. VanKoevering said. “We came out and we played hard right away. That’s what we did in both, so I think that’s a big key to it.” 

Unity Christian had to play hard from the beginning against a River Rouge program making its 20th Finals appearance – the most in MHSAA history – and seeking its first title since 1999.  

The Panthers’ high-pressure defense forced Unity Christian into an uncharacteristic 23 turnovers. 

“We do not turn the ball over, so I’m going to give River Rouge a lot of credit – we just don’t,” Unity Christian coach Scott Soodsma said. “We are averaging probably 10.5 to 12 all year long, and ball security is something we preach. But with the intensity of that game and the way they were coming at us, I give them a lot of credit. We did make a few mistakes that we probably typically don’t do.” 

River Rouge had possession of the ball down just three with 12.4 seconds remaining. The Panthers were able to get two looks at a 3-pointer, but neither fell. Their final attempt to tie the game came on a ¾-court heave by senior Nigel Colvin, which was off the mark. 

“I feel like (the first 3-point attempt) had a chance,” Colvin said. “But after I let it go, obviously I saw that it was off.” 

River Rouge had trailed by as many as 13 points late in the third quarter, as Unity Christian started to heat up and looked to be putting the game away. Wiswary was big during the quarter, scoring 11 of his game-high 17 points.  

“I just think my teammates got me open,” Wiswary said. “I got in the lane a little bit, and they were open on the three and I just got a lot of floaters, then Ryan Takens hit a big 3 there, so that was big.” 

River Rouge was able to claw back with its pressure defense, however, and force the dramatic ending sequence. It was too little, too late, however, in River Rouge coach LaMonta Stone’s eyes. 

“Our defense creates our offense, and defensively we were bad the whole game,” Stone said. “They were getting too many easy looks. They were getting in the lane, and that’s just not the way we’ve been playing defensive basketball to this point.” 

VanKoevering had 13 points for Unity Christian, while Takens had 10, and Zac Velthouse had eight points and eight rebounds. Among the Unity Christian starting five – which also includes Chandler Collins, who added seven points – only Velthouse returns. 

“I couldn’t be prouder of these two guys,” Soodsma said, gesturing to Wiswary and VanKoevering. “They’ve been leaders all year long, on and off the floor. They’ve put in all kinds of work and effort, and those are the two guys we look to all the time. They have been a little bit special – it's going to be hard to say goodbye to them.” 

River Rouge, meanwhile, started five seniors – Colvin, who led the team with 15 points, Micah Parrish who added 13, Donavan Freeman, Bralin Toney and Dan Few. The group helped bring River Rouge back near the top, as the Panthers had advanced to the Semifinals in 2017 and 2018. It was a great ride, but at River Rouge, championships are the goal. 

“We’ve talked all week and talked all year, River Rouge basketball is based on state championships,” Stone said. “There’s banners in our gymnasium – there's 14 state championship banners. (Former coach Lofton Greene) has a number of runner-up places, but he didn’t place those banners in the gymnasium, so I’m not going to place it. That’s my mentor, that’s the guy I played for. Everything I know about basketball is based on Coach Greene. If he’s not satisfied with runner-ups, neither can I be.” 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Hudsonville Unity Christian raises its Division 2 championship trophy Saturday night at the Breslin Center. (Middle) Unity’s Chandler Collins gets a hand on a River Rouge shot.

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.)