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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
Ferndale Caps Winter Season with 1st Boys Hoops Title Since 1966
By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com
March 25, 2023
EAST LANSING – One team was going to end a long championship drought in Saturday’s boys basketball Division 2 Final.
Ferndale’s was especially lengthy, and spanned more than five decades.
And now it is no longer.
The Eagles won their first Finals championship in 57 years with a 44-38 victory over Grand Rapids South Christian at Breslin Center.
Ferndale had last won a state title in 1966.
“The drought is over,” Eagles coach Juan Rickman said. “That’s big time, and the biggest part about making it down here was seeing how charged up the community was and the school was so charged up. It’s the greatest feeling to see how vested our community was in our success.”
Ferndale senior Christopher Williams led the way with 16 points and four rebounds.
“It feels great,” Williams said. “Especially since the past four years we’ve been to the same place and lost twice in a row to the same team, and now it feels like weight is lifted off my shoulders.
“We started off the season 1-5, and going till now we knew if we stayed together through adversity then we could do it. And it made it more impactful that it was our coach’s first state title, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Added senior point guard Cameron Reed, who had a game-high seven assists: “It’s incredibly special. I wasn't born back then, my teammates weren’t born and my coaches weren’t born. It definitely rejuvenated the whole city and community.”
Ferndale led 8-4 at the end of the first quarter, and both teams shot poorly in the first half. The Eagles connected on a paltry 24 percent from the field, and South Christian on 35 percent of its attempts. Nate Brinks drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sailors a 16-14 halftime lead.
Junior guard Jake Vermaas opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 19-14, but Ferndale made a charge.
The Eagles sliced the deficit to one (25-24) on a 3-pointer by Trenton Ruth, and Cameron Reed tied it at 28-28 with an acrobatic layup.
“Our team was mentally strong, and I’m so proud of them for their accomplishment,” Rickman said. “Just so committed to the process and just being resilient.”
An 8-2 spurt by Ferndale over the first three minutes of the fourth quarter made it 36-30.
“That was extremely important, and we always want to win the first four minutes,” Rickman said. “And we tried to open up the fourth quarter with what we call a kill; we want to get five straight stops and score on two or three of those possessions so we can build a lead. We did that fairly well against a good team.”
South Christian was attempting to win football and basketball Finals championships during the same school year, and was looking for its first basketball title since 2005.
“It was a really hard-fought game and I thought we played at our speed, but it got away from us a little bit,” first-year Sailors coach Taylor Johnson said.
“But it doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year. We’ve been through it all, including three season-ending injuries, and to still make it to the state finals is an incredible feat.”
Senior Jacob DeHaan and Vermaas led the Sailors with 14 points apiece, while senior Sam Medendorp added seven points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.
PHOTOS (Top) Ferndale raises the Division 2 championship trophy Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Middle) Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim. (Below) Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.