MHSA(Q&)A: Gibraltar Carlson cheer coach Christina Wilson

February 17, 2012

After cheering through middle and high school, Gibraltar Carlson competitive cheer coach Christina Wilson started coaching the Marauders’ middle school team the season after she graduated from Carlson High in 2001. She took over the varsity team in 2007 – and has accomplished in a short time what many coaches hope for over decades.

Carlson has won three of the last four MHSAA Division 2 championships – also finishing runner-up in 2010 – and is ranked No. 1 in its division heading into District competition this weekend. The Marauders have had a strong program throughout the history of competitive cheer as an MHSAA sport – they won the Class B championship in 1995 under Pat Christiansen and finished runners-up three straight seasons after that – but are on a run unequaled over the last five seasons.

Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Oakland’s cheer teams now boast former Carlson athletes, and all of this success could be just the start – Wilson may have accomplished a lot early in her career, but she said she hopes to keep the Marauders rolling for years to come.

What kind of things did you learn from your high school coach that you still teach today?

As soon as I started coaching middle school – we also got a new coach at the varsity level as well, so we had new coaching throughout the program at that time – I took and got the resources from our former coach in ’95 (Pat Christiansen) and started using all her resources. Everything she implemented and used for her teams, I took and continue to use today

Her daughter (Tami) coached with her in ’95 when we won the state championship, and she recently came back in 2010 as one of our assistants. She brought back that mentality of ’95 of working hard … the harder the practices the more successful you’ll be … make practices count enough so on Saturdays you can be as prepared as you can be … and the importance of making of making good decisions, in practice and outside sports as well.

Your program had success previously. But what happened to take Gibraltar Carlson to the next level?

I started coaching middle school, and by the time I moved up to varsity all (my) rules and procedures, the kids were used to it and it was (the same) throughout the program. It was becoming a program-wide thing to become excellent. It wasn’t just team by team, and I think that helped. We hold our kids to really high standards, and we’re expected to reach our goals and expectations.

What is the one big thing your athletes take away after four years of being part of your program?

We have the mementos and the championship rings and those things. But I think it’s a sense of pride. It gives them a sense of self. They know they can have goals, and if they work hard they can achieve those goals. If they put their minds to something, it’s something they can grasp if they work hard. I think that whole mentality of working hard, pursuing goals and teamwork is instilled right from the get-go, and something they take with them when they leave the program.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?

It’s not easy. We go to several camps; there’s a champion cheerleading camp we go to every summer. We work with college teams too; they come and show us things they do and teach us things. We take some kids every once in a while to out-of-state clinics (Kentucky, Bowling Green, etc.). We really try a diversity of things to get the girls out there and experiencing things. The techniques and ideas, it’s all about seeing something and then adding that to imagination to come up with whatever knows what.

Why are your teams so consistent?

We hold them to high expectations. We have gymnastics classes that they regularly attend, and on their own they go to the gymnastics facility once or twice a week extra on top of that to stay on top of their skills stay among the best athletes in state. One thing we do every year is we create a huge goal board. What we do after we start competing, is every Monday we check off what we’ve completed on the goal board. It’s not just a mental aspect, but it’s visual. Every week focus on something we try to achieve.

What do you enjoy most about coaching?

I love working with the kids. They’re funny. Practice is something new every day; you never know what you’re going to get. It’s so much fun. (And) competing is fun. I like the aspect of competition, the intensity of it. That’s lots of fun too. Winning is fun.

This is the sport Gibraltar Carlson has become known for, the one in which it’s had the most success lately.

It’s starting to grow. People look at cheerleading like, “Oh, it’s cheerleading.” We are definitely gaining the respect of other coaches and other programs, other sports and teachers and the student body. The really cool thing is when people start to look at the sport and realize how physically demanding it is. It makes us feel good to hear when other coaches say they think maybe the cheerleaders might be some of the best athletes in this school.

PHOTO from last season's MHSAA Division 2 Final at the Grand Rapids DeltaPlex.

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.)