'The Watcher' Becomes Must-See Star

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

February 1, 2018

DETROIT – David DeJulius is not your typical teenager.

DeJulius doesn’t eat junk food, he doesn’t drink carbonated soda and he attends yoga classes regularly.

He’s also one of the best basketball players in the state.

A 6-foot guard at Detroit East English, DeJulius, who has signed with University of Michigan, was rated as one of the top players before this season – and it’s safe to say that few players, in any class, are having a better season at this point. He’s averaging 28 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, and his team is ranked in the top 10 in Class A by every news organization that releases weekly rankings.

The candidates for the coveted Mr. Basketball Award won’t be announced for about a month. But it’s difficult to imagine DeJulius’ name won’t be on that short list.

DeJulius, 18, might not be the best basketball player in what is a strong senior class, and he might not win Mr. Basketball. But it won’t be because he didn’t work hard enough or have the proper guidance from those close to him.

As for his nutrition intake, DeJulius credits his father, Dave, for the basics. The elder DeJulius also played basketball in the Detroit Public School League at two eastside high schools (Denby and Osborn).

“He told me to put the right food in my body,” DeJulius said. “I eat healthy. I haven’t drank pop in three years. It’s beyond basketball. I want to create a healthy lifestyle. I want to check every box.”

In addition to the workouts he receives from East English coach Juan Rickman, DeJulius works with three personal trainers to hone his body and improve his knowledge of the game. One of those trainers is former Detroit Pershing coach A.W. Canada. Another is one of Canada’s former assistants, James Cleage, and the third is Tony Harrison, who specializes in boxing and footwork beneficial in athletics.

During the season DeJulius watches game film with Canada, and the two go over nuances to improve DeJulius’ knowledge of the game. Cleage attends the majority of East English’s games, and the two talk afterward about what DeJulius did right and how his play could be improved.

“During the season it’s more to do with strategy,” DeJulius said of the time spent with personal trainers. “During the offseason it’s more physical.

“I do cross training with my boxing workouts. It helps me a lot. Conditioning-wise, you have to give it your all. With Tony, it’s more core work. I only spend about 15 minutes in the ring.”

On Sundays during the season, when many basketball players take the day off, DeJulius attends a yoga class. During the offseason he practices yoga three to four times a week.

“It stretches me out,” he said. “It keeps me limber. And it’s good for my hips.”

DeJulius spent the first two years of high school at Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school located in the city’s Eastern Market area. He was a highly-publicized player when he enrolled at Edison, and his team reached a Class C Regional Final his freshman season and lost in a District Semifinal to Pershing when he was a sophomore. DeJulius was labeled a scorer who had yet to reach his potential when he transferred to East English.

“I knew of him vaguely before he got here,” Rickman said. “I remember him having a high skill set and a good work ethic, or so I heard. But when he came here I wanted him to put it all together. I wanted him to learn how to play a complete game. I wanted him to pass more. I don’t think he understood or knew how to get his teammates involved. He didn’t understand where the defense was at.

“He’s improved on his defense, and that becoming a better defender has improved his offense as well, because he’s now able to predict the positioning of the defenders which allows him to be more efficient and also allows him to make more plays for his teammates.”

Physically, DeJulius was developing. And with the help of Canada, Rickman and others, DeJulius was also gaining a better understanding of the game and what it took for him to become more of a complete player.

“The biggest change for me was here, at East English, its family oriented,” he said. “I’m getting tremendous support on and off the court.”

DeJulius also rid himself of an unflattering nickname given to him when he first came to East English.

“They called me ‘the watcher’ when I first got here,” he said. “As far as rebounding and playing off-the-ball defense, I used to watch a lot. (Rickman) told me I’m too strong, too fast not to rebound.

“Now, as a senior, I’m much better. I’m a senior. I have to get it done now. Physically, I’ve improved my jump shot and I rebound better. My passing has improved. I see the floor much better now, and I’m able to create for my teammates.”

Two current players have had a significant impact on DeJulius and his maturation process. One is his former East English teammate Greg Elliott, who plays for coach Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette University. The other is former U-M point guard Derrick Walton, Jr., who played at Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy, located just a few miles from East English.

As a junior at East English, Elliott helped the Bulldogs capture the school’s first PSL title.

“I learned a lot from Greg,” DeJulius said. “It’s the intangibles. At Marquette, he’s not their first option (offensively) but he’s their best defender. Derrick and I talked about a week ago. I can be that type of player at Michigan. He passes the ball better than I do. I shoot it better. I think I can affect Michigan much the same way he did.”

Should DeJulius win Mr. Basketball, he would be the first player from the PSL to win the award since Pershing’s Keith Appling in 2010.

Riding an 11-game winning streak, East English is 12-2 overall and, at 7-1, has clinched first place in the PSL East Division 1. The Bulldogs will have one of the top two seeds when the PSL playoffs begin next week.

“I believe my chances are very good,” DeJulius said of the possibility of winning the award. “First of all, we’re winning. There’s the stat line I’m putting up against some of the best competition.

“It would mean a lot to me. It would mean a lot to me and the school.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTO: Detroit East English’s David DeJulius pushes the ball upcourt this season. (Photo by David Donoher.)

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.)