Winston Caps Legacy with 1st Jesuit Title

March 26, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING — By most measures, Cassius Winston had a highly successful high school basketball career.

He was a four-year starter on a Detroit U-D Jesuit team that reached the Breslin Center three times, earning a scholarship to Michigan State University and the Mr. Basketball Award. 

But Winston didn't become great by settling for less than perfection.

And now he has what is undeniably the perfect ending to a glorious career. 

Embracing the pressure of performing on the biggest stage in the sport, Winston scored 31 points and dished out nine assists in the Cubs' 69-49 victory over North Farmington in the MHSAA Class A championship game Saturday at the Breslin Center. 

It was the first MHSAA title for U-D Jesuit, which romped through the Class A tournament to complete a 28-0 season. The Cubs had never gone as far as the Quarterfinals until Winston led them to Semifinal appearances in 2014 and 2015 before taking them all the way this season.

Winston's legacy is now complete. 

"I believe in order for you to say you were one of the best high school players or whatever — and I may not be one of the best — but to say you had a completely successful high school career, you have to win championships," Winston said.

Winston lived up to his considerable hype, going 14 for 16 on the court he will call home as a college player. He drove to the basket at will, while also going 2 for 3 from 3-point range.

"It's definitely a good feeling, knowing that I'm capable of playing that way in this gym," Winston said. "The past couple times, it didn't look too good on this floor, but today I got it going. It's just the perfect moment. State championship. Great game. Then I'm headed right back here in a couple months, so it's the perfect way to end it."

Winston is the first to recognize that he would not have enjoyed a perfect ending to his career without a strong supporting cast. Scott Nelson scored 13 points off the bench, Ikechukwu Eke had 10 points and 13 rebounds, and Gregory Eboigbodin had eight points and eight rebounds for the Cubs.

"Everything you want in a basketball team, we have," Winston said. "We have Matt Schearer. I don't think he took a shot today, maybe one. He doesn't mind. He's gonna play defense, he's gonna get rebounds, he's gonna do what you need to do. We've got Ike and Greg, who average 10 points and 10 rebounds. We've got dudes who come off the bench. Everything you like in your basketball team, we have this year. That's why we became successful."

The Cubs became the first Detroit Catholic League school to win the Class A championship since Detroit Catholic Central in 1976. The Catholic League had won two titles over three seasons at that time, with Birmingham Brother Rice winning in 1974.

"Eight years ago, I sat in front of a search committee and I told them I thought U of D was a great place," said Pat Donnelly, who has a 142-42 record in eight seasons with the Cubs. "It had the academics. It had great tradition. I thought this was a place we could win a state championship.

"I have to give credit to the guys who have played in our program from the time I got there, how they accepted me, accepted a culture change in how I operate and how we operate as a program. Every year, we've gotten better."

Jesuit never trailed, scoring the first six points of the game on baskets by three players.

Perhaps the biggest indication it wasn't North Farmington's day came when it had a chance to take its only lead – and a dunk off a steal missed with 53 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Cubs, who were leading 16-15 at the time, responded by scoring eight straight points to begin a 14-2 run.

North Farmington got within 34-27 late in the first half, but Jesuit scored the final five points of the half to take a 39-27 lead into the break.

By halftime, Winston had 22 points on 10 for 11 shooting.

"We felt like if we could try to keep Cassius out of the paint, we'd give ourselves a chance," North Farmington coach Todd Negoshian said. "That's the best I've seen him play in four years. I don't know if it was the big stage or his final game, but that's the Cassius Winston that's going to Michigan State."

North Farmington couldn't get closer than 12 points in the second half, that coming when Jacob Joubert hit a 3-pointer with 6:43 left in the third quarter. A 9-3 run after that gave the Cubs a comfortable cushion the rest of the way.

Nelson scored eight of his 13 points in the fourth quarter to help Jesuit maintain a safe margin over the Raiders.

Billy Thomas, who had 21 points in the Semifinals as a sophomore at Jesuit two years ago, led North Farmington with 23 points.

"That's my brother," Winston said of Thomas. "I want the best for him. Of course, we're playing for a state championship, so we have to limit the best."

The Raiders were 0 for 9 from 3-point range in the first half and 5 for 24 for the game. Jesuit shot 29 for 46 (63 percent) from the floor, including 5 for 13 from beyond the arc.

The Raiders finished 24-3, reaching the championship game after never having been beyond the Regionals.

"I can't say enough about this group of kids, what they've meant to our program, what they've meant to our school and to our community," Negoshian said. "They've left an impression and a footprint, not just from a basketball standpoint, but from a life standpoint on how to behave, how to carry yourself, how to represent yourself and your family in the proper way. This goes way beyond the basketball court. There's not enough words to describe how proud I am of them."

Click for the full box score.

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

PHOTOS: (Top) Cassius Winston drives toward the basket during Detroit U-D Jesuit's Class A championship game win Saturday. (Middle) North Farmington's Alex Darden (31) tries to get a hand on a shot by Scott Nelson (10).

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

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 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.)