A Year Older, Buckley Sets Aspirations High

December 15, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

BUCKLEY – The Buckley Bears are hoping pizza parties become a regular occurrence this winter.

As an incentive to improve defensively, Buckley basketball coach Blair Moss is rewarding his players with pizza parties if they can hold opponents under 40 points.

Through three games, all impressive wins, the Bears have earned one party, beating McBain Northern Michigan Christian 86-39 last Thursday.

“He (Moss) knows we can put up points in a hurry,” junior standout Denver Cade said, “but he wants to see us lock down the other team.”

So far, added emphasis on the team’s man-to-man defense seems to be working. The up-tempo Bears are averaging 92 points offensively, and surrendering 49.

“I know we can score,” Moss said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is locking it down on defense. On nights we’re not making our shots, we’re going to need to have stops (on defense). Since summer, that’s what I’ve been preaching. We’ve talked about it and worked hard on it.”

Focusing on that facet of the game is a priority because Buckley has high aspirations after making a run to the MHSAA Class D Regional Finals last March with a lineup comprised of four sophomores and a freshman. The Bears nearly won the Regional, taking Bellaire to the wire – the teams were tied at 55 with just over a minute to go – before losing 61-57.

“We were young and, as a coach, you wonder how your players are going to handle that kind of pressure,” Moss said. “We threw the ball away in the last couple minutes and that really hurt us. That’s being young. But I think we’ve learned from that.”

That loss became a motivator for the Bears.

“We used it as fuel,” junior Austin Harris said. “We started working even harder after that.”

In the months that followed, players hit the weight room and were in the gym as often as possible. Three starters were heavily involved with AAU. In addition, Moss set up a busy summer schedule that had the Bears traveling all over the state. They competed in scrimmages at Northwood University, Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, as well as local gyms, including Cadillac, where they saw two of the north’s best teams in McBain and Manton. All told, Buckley played nearly 40 games, almost all against larger schools.

“Playing that type of competition has helped prepare us for what’s ahead,” Cade said.

The 6-foot-3 Cade is listed as one of the top 100 players in the state by the Detroit Free Press. He’s off to a solid start, averaging 26 points and eight rebounds a game.

“He’s a winner,” Moss said. “He’s my general on the floor.”

The 6-foot-3 Harris is talented as well. He’s averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. He registered a triple-double in Tuesday’s 100-59 win over Suttons Bay. Harris plays on the wing, but also moves to the point on occasion. Moss would like to play him strictly on the wing to increase his scoring opportunities and balance the floor with Cade on the opposite wing.

Cade and Harris are joined in the lineup by juniors Joey Weber and Brock Beeman and sophomore Ridge Beeman. Weber, who also plays the point, and Ridge Beeman average 11 points; Brock Beeman averages nine per game.

All four juniors were on varsity as freshmen.

“You might get one of these groups every 10 years or so,” Moss said. “You’re just so thankful. They’re all so coachable – and they’re just as good in the classroom as they are on the court. They’ve been playing together since they could walk. They’re in the gym all the time. Their basketball IQ is very high.

“How many coaches start four freshmen at the high school level? I knew we were going to take our lumps that year. We were not very physical, but I knew we were talented enough that we could be in every game.”

The Bears finished 11-11 in 2014-15 and improved to 16-7 a year ago. They now have their sights set higher, starting with winning the Northwest Conference.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Cade warned.

Frankfort, heading into Thursday night’s game, has won 26 league games in a row and returns two top players in juniors Jaylon Rogers and Matt Loney. Glen Lake - bolstered by Lake City transfer Cade Peterson, the quarterback on the Lakers’ MHSAA Finals football team – is 2-0 and seems primed for a breakout campaign. And then there’s Benzie Central, which has given Buckley fits in recent seasons.

“This is the toughest I’ve seen this league,” Frankfort coach Reggie Manville said. “And what’s really scary is that all those teams at the top of the league have most of their starters coming back next season.”

Moss previously coached the Benzie Central varsity for seven seasons. After stepping down, he took two years off from coaching and then re-emerged at Buckley. He’s now in his fourth season.

“I still had that drive, that urge to coach,” he said. “I missed working with kids. I missed the camaraderie with the coaches.”

Todd Kulawiak, the elementary school principal at Buckley, reached out to Moss. The two have a connection – they were former standouts at Benzie under coach Will Lynch and are the two all-time leading scorers in school history. Kulawiak was also an all-state distance runner under Blair’s father, Pete.

Although the Bears struggled the first couple years under Moss, the coach could see what he had coming. Now he’s pushing that group, and himself, so they can reach their potential.

“We’re very capable if we keep focused, keep our heads on straight and keep working hard,” he said.

That drive to improve was a major reason he put together such an aggressive schedule in the summer. He wanted his team to face quality competition, and he was pleased with the results.

“It seemed like we were getting better all the time,” he said.

As an offshoot, Moss also wanted to get his players exposure, especially in camps at college venues.

“They deserve it,” he said. “I want (college coaches) to see our kids. It’s like I told Denver’s father, ‘You’re talking $100,000 for a college education. If he puts the time in now, bingo.’”

Buckley is not particularly big – “We’re mostly a five-guard lineup,” Cade said – so the Bears like to use their athleticism and push tempo.

“With Coach Moss, it’s go, go, go,” Cade said. “If the (MHSAA) had a shot clock, we would be one of the teams that would benefit from it the most because we find a way to get quick, quality shots.”

Opposing coaches have noticed.

“They’re extremely good shooters from the perimeter, and that sets up their offense,” Manville said. “You have to defend that shot. Now, they’re all starting to penetrate to the basket and dish, which makes them more difficult to guard. And if you want to help defend, you’ve got a problem.

“The other problem is they run. They want to score a lot of points. They scored 100 points Tuesday night. Scoring 100 is difficult nowadays. They must have been really efficient. And they’re getting better defensively. I know that’s something they’re working on.”

If Buckley needs size, the Bears can turn to 6-5 Nick Kuhn, who is still developing his game. He had eight points off the bench in a season-opening 91-50 win over Bear Lake.

Buckley’s ability to score, combined with its game experience and chemistry, gives the Bears a good base. But there’s another strength that’s just as important to the team’s success, Harris said.

“Our team has a lot of heart,” he said. “We play really, really hard.”

So now the goal is to play off those strengths while continuing to work on other aspects, like defense. It could make the difference in winning a league title and advancing along the March Madness tournament trail.

“Everybody at that next level can score,” Harris said. “It really comes down to who can play defense.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Buckley’s Ridge Beeman (30) works to gather a loose ball against McBain Northern Michigan Christian on Dec. 8. (Middle) Joey Weber (5) blocks off a driving Bobcats player during the 86-39 win. (Photos courtesy of the Buckley athletic department.)

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.)