Veteran Wyoming Wins Way Into Spotlight

February 20, 2020

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

WYOMING Wyoming boys basketball coach Thom Vander Klay isn’t as worried as most coaches when his team is involved in a tightly-contested game late in the fourth quarter.

The senior-dominated and seasoned Wolves typically find a way to come out on top.

“We’re just kind of gritty, and we don’t get rattled,” the longtime coach said of his 15-1 squad. “We keep plugging away and taking our swings. It’s one of those teams where they are not afraid to lose and so I don’t think you will find moments that are too big, because that’s not really on the agenda. They are fearless in that regard.”

Wyoming is arguably the best team in the Grand Rapids area and proved it during the last week with a pair of key wins over ranked opponents. 

The Wolves rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat previously unbeaten Grand Rapids Christian 62-61 last week and then topped Ottawa-Kent Conference Red champion Hudsonville 57-50 on Tuesday.

Senior Monte Parks drained a pair of free throws with six seconds remaining to help avenge Wyoming’s only loss of the season against the Eagles.

“That was really big, of course, and it was just a tough game,” Vander Klay said. “We shot 26 percent from the floor, and we struggled offensively but found a way to pull it out at the end there.

“We stuck to our motto of not giving up, not quitting and keep playing hard.”

The Wolves’ suffocating defense forced 25 Grand Rapids Christian turnovers, and they took care of the basketball with only five turnovers.

“Those were big wins for us, and we needed those,” Wyoming’s 5-foot-10 senior guard Menalito McGee said. “It just boosted our confidence a lot, too, knowing we can play with anybody in the area.”

Wyoming’s success this season can be attributed to a senior class that played extensive minutes last season.

Eight seniors returned, and their entire starting five (McGee, Parks, Diego Ledesma, Demarion Parks, and Quincy Williams) is made up of seniors.

“They are very experienced, and they have a ton of practice in close games,” Vander Klay said. “And practice-wise it’s so easy because we can draw things up in a timeout and mention something on the fly, and they can pick it up. We have great senior leadership.”

McGee said the seniors learned valuable lessons last year.

“Last year we would lose the close games, so this year we’re more prepared and we know how to close out a game, whether by hitting free throws or making plays,” he said. “We just do whatever it takes to win, and as seniors we have to lead the team as a unit and lead by example on and off the court.” 

The Wolves went 10-12 last season, but elevated their play during the second half of the season before bowing out to East Kentwood in the District Final.

“Basically it’s the same team as last year, and the last month of the season we were as good as anybody,” Vander Klay said. “January wasn’t very good, but the kids persevered through that, and once we got to February we started to play well.”

The late-season push, coupled with the bevy of returnees, raised the bar for this season.

“We definitely had high expectations coming into the season, and we knew what we could do,” McGee said. “We started climbing in February last year, and just building and winning more games. We knew we could hang with anybody this year.”

Wyoming plays an up-tempo brand of basketball and is averaging more than 70 points per game.

The Wolves possess an array of capable scorers with McGee as the catalyst.

He’s averaging nearly 25 points per game and recently etched his name in the MHSAA record book with a pair of stellar shooting performances.

On Jan. 28, McGee scored 45 points and made 12 3-pointers in a win over Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg. His were the most 3-pointers made in a single game in O-K Conference history.

Less than two weeks later, he connected on 14 3-pointers against Wayland and finished with 48 points.

McGee’s 14 3-pointers placed him second on the MHSAA all-time list. He trails only Matt Kitchen of Mayville, who made 15 against Bay City All Saints in 2001. 

“Against T-K I hit my first one early in the game and came right back with a heat check and made another, so I knew from there that it was going to be a good night,” McGee said. “The Wayland game was the same thing. I think I had seven 3-pointers at halftime, and the bucket just got bigger.”

Vander Klay has had several elite 3-point shooters pass through the Wyoming/Wyoming Park program, including his son, Chase, and former Michigan State standout Drew Neitzel.

“He’s a competitor, and obviously, a very good shooter,” Vander Klay said of McGee. “Chase was one of our better shooters, but he didn’t have all the skills that Menalito has. He’s not very tall, but he’s slippery and can go by you. He sees the floor and gets it to the open man.

“He’s more like Drew in that regard. You have to step up and guard him, and when you do, he can make you pay that way. His decision-making is quite good, and he knows he can score from anywhere. His leadership is similar to Drew as well. He’s very vocal and knows how to talk to his teammates to motivate them.”

McGee credits his improved all-around game to time spent in the gym during the offseason.

“This year I got faster and stronger and added a pull-up jumper in the offseason,” McGee said. “I like to score the ball more, but also look for the open teammate and make the extra pass.”

A three-year varsity player, McGee also recently surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career.

“That was very special, and it was a good moment that I will remember for the rest of my life,” McGee said. “It’s an honor, and it was a lot of hard work. It isn’t easy to do, and you have to earn that. I put the work in.”

The Wolves have four regular-season games remaining and then will turn their attention to making a deep run in the MHSAA Tournament.

“The first goal is to finish conference and win the O-K Gold,” McGee said. “And then after that, focus on Districts and try to win that. The primary goal is to win a state championship. We want a ring.”

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four 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) Wyoming’s Diego Ledesma (1) is introduced before a Feb. 4 win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. (Middle) Menalito McGee (10) gets to the basket. (Below) The Wolves talk things over with coach Thom Vander Klay. (Photos courtesy of the Wyoming boys basketball program.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

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 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.)