We Will Always Remember Trojans, Lumberjacks as 114-Year-Old Rivalry Nears End

By Ron Pesch
MHSAA historian

February 9, 2024

The MHSAA basketball record book still lacks a rivalries category. The state’s football record book offers clues to likely candidates, but without deep research, the participants and sequencing of such lists will remain unknown.

Certainly, among the candidates would be the annual boys basketball battles between Saginaw’s east side and west side – Saginaw High vs. Saginaw Arthur Hill. Come Friday, Feb. 16th, 2024, twilight falls on one of Michigan’s most intense. Because of its significance, the game will be hosted outside of a high school gymnasium.

Saginaw’s Dow Event Center will stage the final regular-season showdown between the Trojans and Lumberjacks. Titled the ‘Game of Legends,’ all 5,000 tickets for the celebration were snapped up in 20 minutes. After years of discussions, at the end of the school year, Saginaw High and Arthur Hill will combine to finalize the formation of Saginaw United High School.

Based on the research of Dave Slaggert, the series between schools began during the 1910-11 season at the Saginaw Manual Training School gymnasium. Head varsity boys basketball coach at Arthur Hill from 1996 through 2001, Slaggert spent five years compiling a book documenting the rivalry. Much of the manuscript has already been committed to paper. That includes a chapter penned by Michigan State University coaching legend Tom Izzo, who highlights the uniqueness of the crosstown rivalry, the crazy fans, and the talent that brought him regularly to town. Titled “Remember the Trojans & the Lumberjacks,” the concluding chapter awaits the results of the 2024 season.

The Beginnings

In 1889, Michigan’s State Legislature consolidated the cities of East Saginaw and Saginaw City into what we know today as Saginaw.

East Side High School opened in 1865. In 1901, West Side High School was renamed Arthur Hill, in honor of a former school board president and mayor of Saginaw City.

Football teams from Saginaw High (sometimes called Saginaw Eastern) and Arthur Hill High first met on the gridiron in 1894. In 1904, both joined Flint (Central) and two schools from Bay City to form the Saginaw Valley League. During the 1910-11 season, the boys squads from the Saginaw schools squared off on the basketball court for the first time.

Saginaw High’s Webster Kirksey (30) puts up a shot; he graduated in 1951.“Saginaw High easily defeated the Arthur Hill High school basketball players … in the first game of the interscholastic series,” stated the Saginaw Daily News, “the final score standing 60 to 17. … (Bill) Steckert contributed 12 field baskets for the winners. … (Leo) Vondette starred for the losers.”

Perhaps it was a typo – it’s impossible to know – but the final score differed in the 1911 Saginaw yearbook – “The Aurora” – when published in the spring. “Before a large crowd of enthusiastic fans, Arthur Hill was decisively defeated in the local gym, the final count being 69 to 17, with the East Siders on the heavy end.”

The author concluded with flair and flourish: “Steckert starred for Saginaw, getting 24 points to his credit, while Vondette was the celestial light for the vanquished quintet. Dancing was enjoyed after the game.”

A week later, the Saginaw girls basketball team opened its season against the west siders. According to the yearbook, “Saginaw out-played Arthur Hill and defeated them by the score of 41-4.” The newspaper credited Leona Buck as the leading scorer, with a phenomenal 29 points.

The Inevitable Finale

The doors open at 3 p.m. for the 2024 festivities at The Dow next Friday. Fittingly, the Saginaw girls team will tip off the action on the court at 5 o’clock. The girls programs already have consolidated, and the Phoenix of Saginaw United will face Flint Carman-Ainsworth – a school that consolidated in 1986. The Hill and High contest is scheduled for 7 p.m.

“It’s really going to be a big deal,” said Slaggert, thrilled by the prospect. “Saginaw’s going all out for this. They’re trying to do it up in style.”

The wrap-up comes a decade after what, initially, looked like the end.

On Feb. 15, 2014, Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mick McCabe wrote about the expected unification.

“Saginaw and Saginaw Arthur Hill likely met for the last time ever in the regular season Friday,” he wrote. Saginaw had just knocked off the Lumberjacks, the No. 2 team in McCabe’s weekly ranking of the state’s top teams.

“The Saginaw-Arthur Hill basketball rivalry is the best in the state, so you shouldn’t be surprised when the underdog wins. But Saginaw (11-6) was coming off consecutive losses to Midland and Midland Dow for maybe the first time ever.”

The school district was expected to announce the closure of Saginaw High that following Monday, merging its students into Arthur Hill. The move would mean a new school name, new school colors, and a new nickname.

Like many urban centers across the country, outbound migration of both jobs and people, combined with plunging birth rates, had altered the demographics of cities, and the education landscape.

“In just five decades, the city's population dropped from nearly 100,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 52,000 by the 2010 census,” stated the Saginaw News in 2014. “To say it another way, Saginaw lost 48 percent of its residents during the last 50 years.”

McCabe cut to what that meant to enrollment numbers at the two schools: “In 1987, Saginaw High had over 1,800 students; it is now down to about 600. Arthur Hill had 2,395 students in ’85; it now has 973.”

Arthur Hill’s Ernie Thompson and coach Larry Laeding accept the 1962 Class A championship trophy.Despite the defeat, McCabe predicted Arthur Hill to be among the final four Class A teams still standing that season when the annual MHSAA Tournament shifted to Michigan State’s Breslin Center. But in the craziness of March, the Trojans again took down Arthur Hill in the Districts, 53-51.

Adding to the madness, the expected consolidation didn’t happen. A recommendation by a Saginaw interim superintendent to close Saginaw High found no school board support.

With the potential consolidation still hovering, one year later sportswriter Bill Khan recalled other recent departures from Michigan’s classic basketball landscape in an article for the StateChamps! Sports Network:

“The Saginaw-Arthur Hill rivalry is at risk of going the way of other great urban rivalries – such as Flint Central-Flint Northern, Pontiac Central-Pontiac Northern, Lapeer East-Lapeer West, Detroit Cooley-Detroit Southwestern, Detroit Mackenzie-Detroit Redford, Detroit Kettering-Detroit Northeastern, Detroit Miller-Detroit Northern and Detroit Southeastern-Detroit Eastern, that have ended in years past due to school closures and consolidations.”

Arthur Hill downed the Trojans twice during the 2014-15 regular season league action, and again in postseason District play, before finishing the year as Class A runner-up, and the holding pattern of the planned school merger continued.

Enrollment numbers continued to drop at both schools and after much community and school board debate, construction on a brand-new five-story Saginaw United High School began in 2022.

A Celebration of Statistics

The state basketball tournament kicked off in 1917. Over 107 years, on only two occasions – in 1943 during World War II, and in 2020, due to COVID-19 – the tournament was not completed.

Slaggert breaks down the City of Saginaw School District’s incredible basketball history in a quick series of numbers.

“47-36-18-8,” said Slaggert, stressing a bullet point of a well-rehearsed pitch, breaking out the incredible success of the two schools come tournament time.

“During those 105 tournaments, 47 times, Saginaw High (starting in 1919) or Arthur Hill (beginning in 1930) made it into the state Quarterfinals – the final eight.

“That’s almost half of the 105 possible years. And in most cases throughout that rivalry, they would have played each other in the Districts. So how many more times would they have made it if they were coming in different brackets or different directions? “

To take that further, he noted, 36 times one of those teams made it into the final four. On 18 occasions, one of the two schools reached the state title game, and on eight occasions, they emerged as MHSAA state champions.

Six of those titles were won by Saginaw High (1942, 1962, 1996, 2007,2008, 2012). Arthur Hill’s championships were won in 1944 and 2006.

“That's a pretty incredible stat for two schools in the same town, don’t you think?” Slaggert asked.

Richard dunks at the final buzzer as Arthur Hill downs top-ranked Flint Northwestern in a 1999 Class A Regional matchup.That history also points out another Slaggert challenge. As illustrated, come March the schools could, in theory, bump into each other one more time come the postseason. This year, the teams are in different Districts, and could potentially cross paths in an MHSAA Regional.

A Parade of All-Staters

Between 1938 and 2023, a combined total of 106 players from the two schools – 10 or more in each decade from the 1940s to the 2010s – have earned all-state basketball honors from The Associated Press and/or one or more of the Detroit newspapers: the Free Press, News or Times.

Since the introduction of Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award in 1981, honoring the best-of-the-best from the state’s top high school seniors, 10 players from the two schools have landed among the top five in voting: Eric Davis (AH –‘15), Maurice Jones (AH –‘10), Draymond Green (S –‘08), Dar Tucker (AH –‘07), Anthony Roberson (S –‘02), Eugene Seals (S –’00, and head coach of the United girls basketball team), Jason Richardson (AH-‘99), Jessie Drain (S –‘91) and Daryl Reed (S –‘87). Richardson won the award. Davis, Green, Tucker, Roberson, and Seals all finished second in the annual voting.

Tony Smith (S -‘74), Craig Dill (AH -‘63), Ernie Thompson (S -‘62), Webster Kirksey (S -‘51), Dick Rifenburg (AH -‘44), and Larry Savage (S -‘42) were all honored by the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan with their Retro Mr. Basketball Award when the organization sought to honor the great seniors in Michigan high school basketball from the years 1920 through 1980. Seven others – James Koger (S -‘79), Lovell Humes (S – ’63), Bill Agre (AH -‘47), Gene Glick (AH -’46), Jack Mott (AH -’45), Eddie Johnson (S – ’43) and Stanley Paskiewicz (S -’38) – were among the candidates for that award.

Based on research by Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Robin Goddard, Saginaw High is likely the state’s winningest basketball program, trailed by Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo Central and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.

Initially, Saginaw dominated the crosstown series with the Lumberjacks. But by the 1920s Arthur Hill overcame the deficit, and by the mid-1950s the Hill had opened a wide 25-game lead in wins versus losses. But by 1975, the gap had narrowed with the Trojans just six games back in the series. And yet, the exact status of the rivalry is still unknown, as the capture of game scores is spotty going forward.

The digging to capture those missing scores continues, as does the race to game day.

Slaggert has committed to printing 1,000 copies of his book. His challenge to date has been selling copies of something that does not yet, physically, exist. As it stands, currently there are 772 pages in the book. It includes a mind-blowing 800+ photos dating as far back as 1905. The sale price is fixed at $40. That currently means the production cost per copy exceeds the retail price, so Slaggert continues to chase sponsorships to defray the printing expense.

“It’s a non-profit effort,” he noted. “If there are any profits, they go to scholarships for the new high school. All money is run through the Saginaw Community Foundation,” which makes sponsorships tax-deductible.

His favorite memory from the series is his last victory as an Arthur Hill coach. It comes from 2001.

“Saginaw High defeated us 90-37 in the second game of that season and finished with a 17-5 season record that year,” he retold. “We had a modest 10-10 season record heading into the Districts but showed lots of improvement through the season. We met again in the District Finals. Saginaw High was led by Anthony Roberson, LaMarr Woodley, Michael Thomas and Tanoris Shepard and was ranked seventh in the state. In front of a sold-out Heritage High School crowd, our kids played their hearts out and, led by Devaundre Whitson, Omar Linder, and Freddy Jackson, pulled out a 68-66 overtime win! (It’s) my greatest thrill in coaching, and most of the old-timers say it’s the greatest upset in the rivalry.”

Slaggert retired from coaching after that season, and in the years to follow, found a desire to record the history of the series.

“I have nine living coaches from Saginaw and Arthur Hill that have written a chapter for me. I have eight others that I've written on Larry Laeding, Chuck Fowler, and different coaches that are deceased,” he said. “My intent is to give something back to my community. I didn’t do this for money. I wanted this story to be passed down to future generations – people 100 years from now about Jason Richardson, Draymond Green, Ernie Thompson, Craig Dill, and all the great ones.

“It’s a labor of love for me, I’ve really enjoyed it.”

This banner provides ordering information for the book.To order Slaggert's book, click for the Facebook link or visit the Saginaw Community Foundation website, click "Give Now" and select the book title as Fund. Cost is $40 with an option including shipping for $52.


PHOTOS (Top) Saginaw Eugene Seals drives against Arthur Hill’s Jason Richardson – with coach Marshall Thomas in the background – during a sold-out 1999 game at the Saginaw Civic Center. (2) Arthur Hill’s Ernie Thompson and coach Larry Laeding accept the 1962 Class A championship trophy. (3) Saginaw High’s Webster Kirksey (30) puts up a shot; he graduated in 1951. (4) Richard dunks at the final buzzer as Arthur Hill downs top-ranked Flint Northwestern in a 1999 Class A Regional matchup. (Photos collected by Dave Slaggert. Top photo courtesy of Saginaw News/MLive.)

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.)