Where's Cros-Lex? Among Hoops Best

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

February 16, 2021

Conversations about Croswell-Lexington basketball have long been common in Lance Campbell’s barbershop. 

Hearing them on the opposite side of the state, though, is something new. 

“It’s nice to go on Twitter and have people talking about Cros-Lex,” said Campbell, the Cros-Lex boys coach whose full-time job is running Campbell’s Cuts in Croswell. “It hasn’t been something that’s happened. It’s nice to get the statewide attention. A friend of mine went to a showcase in Grand Rapids, and said he was sitting in the stands and people were like, ‘Who the (heck) is that Croswell whatever? Where the (heck) are they?’” 

To answer the question: Cros-Lex is a few miles inland from Lake Huron in the southern half of the Thumb. But the folks on the west side were talking because they had already found Cros-Lex – near the top of the Division 2 boys basketball rankings.  

The Pioneers were 20-1 a year ago, spending most of the season in the top five of the polls. They were ranked No. 25 in all divisions by MLive heading into the postseason and were picked by multiple writers and followers of the sport to make the school’s first run to the Breslin Center for the MHSAA Final Four.  

The online chatter never had a chance to turn into more, as the season was ended prior to the District Final because of COVID-19. But with much of the team back, led by four-year standouts Hunter Soper and Tyler Johnson, the Pioneers are looking to prove all the talk was justified. 

“Last year felt perfect,” Soper said. “It’s hard to think about it, and going to bed every night with a ‘What if?’ Everything felt like it was clicking for us. We’re trying to get back to that this year. We’re hoping to make a deep run again and not end on a ‘what if,’ but a ‘we won.’” 

Campbell, a Cros-Lex graduate himself, won’t say outright that he saw this coming. But he also won’t say that he didn’t.  

While he’s in his fourth year as varsity coach, he’s been coaching at some level in the program since the early 2000s, when his former coach Don Roberts asked him to come aboard. He watched the players who now make up his team grow up as athletes on the basketball court, baseball diamond and football field.  

Croswell-Lexington boys basketball

“Five or six years ago, we kind of looked and thought this could be a special class, but I’ve seen that happen multiple times and you never know how it will work out,” Campbell said. “When I was in eighth grade, I think four of the five starters didn’t even play basketball by the time we were on varsity. This senior class, Joey Noll was a role player, he was the eighth or ninth kid on the eighth-grade team, now he’s a starter. Two kids who started on that eighth-grade group aren’t playing anymore. We kind of envisioned this being a special group, but again, I’ve seen where it doesn’t always work out.” 

There was also a question as to whether the talented group would turn its focus to one sport over another. Many of the Campbell’s current players grew up playing baseball together on travel teams. As they reached high school, however, the multi-sport focus has only increased. Campbell said each member of main rotation is a multi-sport athlete, many of them playing three sports. That’s a source of pride for Campbell, who is also the school’s golf coach. 

“When we had four-man workouts, I was like, ‘Basketball is not even on your radar right now. Focus on things football related,’” he said. “We have to collectively work together. (Football coach Mike LeGrow) did a good job this year, and hopefully that will continue. I know some of these kids are starting to throw some baseballs. We also tell them to not overdo it. We’re going six days a week right now, three days of games, three days of practices, and once in a while you have to be a kid. You have to stay home and play PlayStation or Xbox. If you have a girlfriend, you have to take her to the movies. You have to spend some time with your parents.” 

The players also weren’t sure of what could come, even though Soper and Johnson were showing early signs of being special on the court, having moved up to the fifth-grade team as third graders. 

“I think back then we were mostly focused on baseball,” said Johnson, who is still weighing playing baseball and basketball in college. “We were part of a really good travel baseball team. It wasn’t until our sophomore year that we thought, ‘OK, basketball could be it.’ That was our first summer playing AAU.” 

Johnson said playing multiple sports together has brought the team closer together, referring to his teammates as brothers. It’s also helped to build chemistry on each field of play. 

“I feel like it helps out a lot with the different roles everyone plays on the baseball diamond or football field,” Soper said. “You get to understand what guys do, and their tendencies.” 

Soper and Johnson are the unquestioned stars on the basketball court. Both stand at 6-foot-5 and are dangerous from anywhere on the court. While neither has signed with a college, they both plan to play at the next level. Soper was the Blue Water Area Conference MVP a year ago, and Johnson was runner-up.  

As Cros-Lex has rolled to a 3-0 start this season, Soper is averaging 17.3 points per game and Johnson 14. Soper also has set the school record for career rebounds. 

But the Pioneers have shown they go much deeper than their two stars as they are winning by an average of 40.6 points per game. Juniors Saige Slanec and Jake Townsend have also contributed double-figure scoring games. Seniors Noll and Nolan Durand continue to play major roles on both ends of the floor, and sophomore point guard Trey Kolakovich has meshed nicely with his older teammates in his second varsity season. 

Croswell-Lexington boys basketball“Collectively, we’ve got so many kids that do things that kind of get overlooked,” Campbell said. “The great thing with our team is, I had a guy send me a message after the game (Saturday against Brown City) and he said there were instances in the fourth quarter when we had some bench players on the floor and they did things well and everyone on the bench was up and cheering. I always tell them that I was all-area in high school, but no one remembers that. If we would have been good enough to put up a championship on a banner, then everyone would see it. If we do things collectively, as a team, that’s something not anybody can take away from you.” 

The Pioneers have never won a Regional title, something this year’s team hopes to end. But they know it won’t be easy, and after last year, they are simply embracing the opportunity. 

“I feel like every practice, every time we’re together and every time you’re on the court, we don’t take it for granted,” Soper said. “Especially for a senior, everybody talks about how fast it goes, but you don’t really know until you live through it.” 

They’re also not taking the online chatter and recognition for granted, even if they’re much more interested in showing the state how good they are in person. 

“It’s really cool that a little town in east Michigan in the Thumb and on the lake can get all this recognition, and that people are talking about us,” Johnson said. “We see most of it, and we talk about it, but it’s not like we freak out about it. Coach keeps us pretty under control. You can look at this stuff, but it doesn’t mean much. You just have to keep playing.” 

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Croswell-Lexington’s Saige Slanec looks into the post during a game this season. (Middle) Trey Kolakovich brings the ball up the floor. (Below) Croswell-Lexington’s bench anticipates a teammate’s 3-pointer. (Photos courtesy of Mike Gallagher/Sanilac County News.)

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.)