Whitaker Adds Scoring Milestone, School Record to Remarkable Hoops Rise

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

January 23, 2024

Braiden Whitaker traded sunshine for snow, oceans for Great Lakes and year-round football for basketball.

Southeast & BorderDespite not playing organized basketball until seventh grade, the Dundee senior has evolved into a 6-foot-5 beast on the basketball court and has the Vikings 13-1 and ranked sixth in the state.

“The passion he plays with is infectious to everyone around him,” said Dundee coach Jay Haselschwerdt. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the team. The other players feed off that.”

Whitaker has been outstanding all season, but never better than his record-setting performance last week for the Vikings at home in a nonleague game against Monroe Jefferson.

Whitaker came into the game needing 36 points to reach 1,000 for his career. In the fourth quarter, he started getting close. His teammates kept getting him the ball.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. They helped me out. I started off bad in the first quarter, so I knew in the second half it was time to go.”

Haselschwerdt said Whitaker’s teammates were cheering him on down the stretch.

“As he got closer, the team really wanted him to get to 1,000,” he said. “Hats off to Braiden and hats off to the team for being okay with that. It was a very special night.”

When Whitaker got his 1,000th point, he got emotional. He teared up as coaches, teammates and family recognized his accomplishment.

Whitaker, left, with Dundee coach Jay Haselschwerdt. “It meant a lot to him,” Haselschwerdt said.

Only, he wasn’t done. After hitting another shot and converting a three-point play, he was only a couple buckets shy of the school’s single-game scoring record of 43 points. He got that a minute later, finishing with 44 in the 72-63 victory.

Dundee needed every one of Whitaker’s points to hold off Jefferson. The Vikings started the game missing one starter and during it lost two more to injuries. Jefferson scored 30 points in the fourth quarter and kept the game close.

“When you are 13-1, you are going to get everyone’s best shot,” Haselschwerdt said. “We know that. The kids have stepped up and adjusted their game.”

No one has adjusted his game more than Whitaker.

He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where football is king.

“Football is crazy there,” Whitaker said. “You play football year-round. Everyone does. That’s what I did. I was really into flag football at that time.”

In the seventh grade, however, Whitaker’s family moved to Michigan.

“We had family in the area,” he said. “Most of my mom’s family is from the area. My aunt moved into Dundee about a year before we moved up here. I didn’t know much about Michigan. I remember we were looking for a school to go to, and we chose Dundee.”

Whitaker never gave up football. In the fall he was one of the top receivers in Monroe County and has made a couple of unofficial college visits to schools wanting him to play football at the next level. Right now, his options remain open.

“We’re glad he’s here,” Haselschwerdt said. “He wants to go to college in Michigan. He’s got a great friend group. He’s a big part of Dundee life. He is kind of a rock star. Everybody knows him.”

Haselschwerdt said Whitaker has worked hard to rise to this level.

“Basketball wasn’t something he’s dominated since in the seventh grade,” the coach said. “He’s worked on his game. He’s grown by leaps and bounds. He’s become a great player, but it was a lot of hard work.”

Whitaker debuted on the Vikings varsity as a sophomore, averaging 10.1 points per game. Last year he increased that average to around 18 ppg and led the Vikings to a District championship by scoring 12 of his team's last 17 points in a 53-51 win over Ida, including a thrilling dunk in the final moments that sent the Dundee crowd into a frenzy. They mobbed him on the court after the win.

“Everyone loves him,” Haselschwerdt said. “His teammates, the students, the fans. Even the community. He’s that kind of kid. The community has embraced him.”

The previous single-game scoring record had stood since 1959. With this season just past the halfway point, Whitaker has his sights set on a league title, a long tournament run and, possibly, more records.

“Everyone likes breaking records,” Whitaker said. “It was a great feeling to accomplish that."

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Dundee’s Braiden Whitaker throws down a thunderous dunk. (Middle) Whitaker, left, with Dundee coach Jay Haselschwerdt. (Top photo by Mike Doughty; middle photo courtesy of the Dundee boys basketball program.)

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.)