Unity Rides Impressive Run Into Saturday

March 15, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – The last two weeks have seen Hudsonville Unity Christian thrust into the statewide spotlight with a pair of wins over teams expected to contend for this season’s Division 2 title.

But the Crusaders have belonged in that conversation all season as well, and showed why again Friday in clinching a spot in their first MHSAA boys basketball championship game since 1973.

Unity Christian ran its winning streak to 21 this winter with a 69-30 victory over Ludington in the night’s first Division 2 Semifinal at Breslin Center.

The impressive showing fit well following the Regional Final win over 2018 Class B champion Benton Harbor and Tuesday’s 36-point Quarterfinal win over Grand Rapids South Christian, which handed the Crusaders their last loss, by two on Dec. 21.

“We talked about flying under the radar because we’ve done that all year long, and that’s been a good thing – that’s fine with us,” Unity coach Scott Soodsma said. “I think we have just really turned it up a notch. These kids are just winners, and they were getting close to the end of their careers, and they want to go out champions. So I think they just actually on their own decided to turn it up a notch.”

Unity (25-2) will face River Rouge in Saturday’s 6:45 p.m. championship game. As noted, it will be the Crusaders’ first Final since 1973, and they also finished Class B runners-up in 1963.

But the program has been building toward this opportunity. Last week’s Regional title was its first since 2008, but Unity won its third straight league and District championships rolling toward the end of February.

The Crusaders led Friday for all but 59 seconds when the teams were tied early, and by double digits for the final 27 minutes. The lockdown defense added to a postseason effort that has seen Unity give up only 47 points on average over seven playoff wins.

“There was stuff we thought was open when we went in at halftime, but our offense was being played so far away from the basket and so far off the 3-point line that we had a heck of a time taking advantage of any of those things,” Ludington coach Thad Shank said.

“When you’re a team that can really pressure the ball like they do, you don’t even have to play great defense behind that ball pressure because it causes so much havoc.”

On the other side of the court, senior guard Noah Wiswary was the only Unity scorer in double figures with 17 points. But while 12 players got on the board, the team’s shooting percentage stayed at a sparkling 59 percent from the floor for the game. Unity also had 18 assists on 29 field goals.

“We just want to win. That’s all we want to do,” Wiswary said. “We just want to get the state championship. We want to win, and sharing the ball is the best way to do that, so that’s what we do.”

Senior forward T.J. VanKoevering added eight points and six rebounds for the Crusaders.

Senior guard Joshua Laman led Ludington with nine points.

Although ending on a tough note, the Orioles provided one of the surprises of the tournament. They entered the postseason 9-10, but defeated five opponents all with at least 13 wins to make it to the Semifinals for the second time in three seasons. Ludington finished 14-11.

“Going into the postseason 9-10 definitely isn’t easy when you’ve got a bunch of people looking at you, looking at the first game of Districts and thinking oh, they don’t have a chance,” Ludington senior Sam Bandstra said. “But in the postseason we came together as a team. It wasn’t about us, and we came out and played as a team, and we shocked some people. When we’re playing the intense defense we were playing and really moving the ball and playing as a team – we came together at the right time.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ludington’s Joshua Laman (11) works for a shot against Unity’s Derek Slager (22) and T.J. VanKoevering during Friday’s Division 2 Semifinal. (Middle) Unity’s Grant Balcer pushes the ball upcourt.

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.)