Heartache in Past, Wait Ends as West Catholic Breaks Through to Breslin

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Good things come to those who wait.

That has been the case for the Grand Rapids West Catholic girls basketball team.

The Falcons have had to endure two years of disappointment and heartache, but all of that has been washed away with this year’s tournament run.

“It’s really exciting for our team, just because of all the hard work we’ve put in and it's finally showing with this run,” said Falcons senior guard and Michigan State recruit Abbey Kimball, whose team rolled into the Division 2 Semifinals on Tuesday with a convincing 82-27 win over previously-unbeaten Edwardsburg in the Quarterfinals.

“Obviously the past two years haven’t been the best, but we’re just happy we are here and we're just trying to enjoy the moment.”

This moment has eluded West Catholic most recently.

In 2020, the Falcons won their first District title in 25 years and earned a berth in the Regional Finals before the remainder of tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Last season, West Catholic won another District title, but lost to Newaygo, 55-48, in the Regional Final without the services of Kimball and junior standout and Toledo commit Cadence Dykstra.

“You can't predict things like COVID or injuries or whatever circumstance that might come up,” Falcons coach Jill VanderEnde said. “You have to take it day by day, and you have to be resilient and you have to adapt. 

“This year has been about being adaptable and yet continuing to persevere. That's what separates the team from years past, even though we’ve had some great teams the past few years.”

Grand Rapids West Catholic basketballThe Falcons will play Friday in their first Semifinal since 1995, against Detroit Country Day at the Breslin Center.

West Catholic lost to the Yellowjackets, 44-32, in the 1995 Class B Final.

“They’re a great team that is well-coached and very athletic and skilled,” VanderEnde said. “We will have to come up with a savvy gameplan to disrupt the things they do well.”

The Falcons improved to 24-1 as a suffocating defense helped them to their Quarterfinal win.

West Catholic led 26-5 after the first quarter en route to the lopsided victory.

“Our defense has set the tone all season long, and going into the tournament that’s what we were hoping to hang our hat on,” VanderEnde said.

The Falcons’ only loss occurred earlier in the season against Rockford, which advanced to the Division 1 Semifinals.

West Catholic went undefeated in conference play, led by Kimball and a supporting cast of young talent.

All five of its starters, including Kimball, Dykstra, freshman Elisha Dykstra, sophomore Emma Tuttle and junior Ellie Bies, made the all-conference team, while freshman Anna Ignatoski and sophomore Reese Polega earned all-conference honorable mention.

“It’s always satisfying when you can look at your players and know that they put in the hard work and that they've done everything you have asked and more to try and accomplish a goal that the entire team was seeking,” VanderEnde said. “Just to see those kids’ faces and smiles in the locker room (after Tuesday’s win) and the pure excitement and enjoyment of being able to accomplish something that we set out for so many months ago to do was really rewarding.

“That's what coaching is all about. Getting everyone on the same page and going in the same direction and not leaving anyone behind.”

Kimball, a four-year starter, finished runner-up to Detroit Edison’s Ruby Whitehorn in the Michigan Miss Basketball Award voting.

She is the lone senior, and has embraced her role as a veteran leader.

“In other years, there have been other seniors on the team who I’ve looked up to and they’ve really paved a path for me,” Kimball said. “Just to see how to lead a team, and so I’ve taken that role by getting girls in the gym with me and leading by example. They’ve helped me in that way, and it’s been really cool.”

VanderEnde has seen that growth throughout the season.

“Her skill level is off the charts, but there is a lot of responsibility with being the lone senior,” she said. “She has learned how to embrace her teammates and work with the younger kids. In the past she didn’t have to share that load. She could just be herself and be the leading scorer, but with all the seniors gone she has helped hold the other kids accountable in helping achieve the goals for the program. She’s really matured in that area.”

Kimball will now get the rare opportunity to play on her future collegiate court.

“I’m excited, and it will be the first time playing on that court so that will be fun,” Kimball said. “Every game we’ve been super focused because we want to get to the end goal, which is a state championship.”

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four 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 dream100@comcast.net with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) West Catholic’s Abbey Kimball (1), Emma Tuttle (15) and Ellie Bies (11) help up a teammate this season. (Middle) Kimball makes her move to the basket. (Photos courtesy of the West Catholic athletic department.)

'Go-To Guy' Kanitz Sets Selfless Example in Helping Make St. Francis Sports Go

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

August 26, 2022

Traverse City has had a few head football coaches named Kanitz.

But Mike Kanitz has no interest in becoming a head football coach. In fact, no interest in being a head coach of any sport.

So far he’s worked for nine head coaches. He’s seen what it takes to be a head varsity coach and he’ll stay where he is, which is pretty much anywhere there is a high school sporting event.

Kanitz spends his days and nights dedicated to the Traverse City St. Francis student-athletes, staff, administration and Gladiators community. He is the junior varsity girls basketball coach, volleyball game manager, volleyball announcer and volleyball scorekeeper, football press box manager, and the Glads’ soccer game manager. Additionally, as director of basketball operations at St. Francis, he finds himself at the scorer’s table for boys basketball games.

The volleyball, soccer and football duties are performed at every home game. He doesn’t take a paycheck for any of it. If the school does pay for his services, he promptly donates the funds to the source.

The soft-spoken and renowned St. Francis supporter is not the slightest bit interested in getting any recognition for his efforts.

Tonight he’ll run the Thirlby Field press box as the Gladiators host Ogemaw Heights. And, he’s ready for the Glads’ first home volleyball match Sept. 8.

“He is one of those unique people that shies away from the spotlight — he is a pure servant, said Aaron Biggar, St. Francis’ athletic director.  “He doesn’t want any accolades or anything like that.”

Kanitz’ father, Hugo Kanitz – who also went by Mike all his life – was the head football coach of Traverse City St. Francis during the 1960s.  Another Kanitz, Dutch — not related to the father-son combo —was at the helm of the Traverse City Central High School football program.

Kanitz walks the sideline during one of his games leading the JV Gladiators. Mike Kanitz finds himself regularly receiving phone calls and letters from former players intended for the Kanitz coaches. He has to explain he’s not the deceased Central coach, nor his father. And he’s glad he gets to pass on positive feedback to his father, also a former athletic director for St. Francis.

“My grandmother said, ‘Never call him Hugo – his name is Mike,’” Kanitz said. “Don’t ask me where it came from, but he was Mike his whole life.

“I am junior in most people’s minds,” Kanitz went on. “Traverse City was a small town back then; to have two Coach Kanitz was confusing.”

His father now lives in Traverse City after retiring as a teacher and professor. The son enjoys picking his brain.

“I am blessed to still be able to run stuff by him (because) that’s really where I got my coaching start,” he said. “I used to get calls after coming back to Traverse City and the callers would say, ‘Is this Coach Kanitz?’ and I started to catch on that these were his former students.

“I don’t think my dad ever knew the impact he was having on kids,” Kanitz continued. “I don’t think coaches really know what an impact they have on kids.”

Hearing from his father’s former players helped shape his coaching.

“It made me realize as a coach you have the ability every time you open your mouth to either hurt a kid or help a kid,” he said. “So helping a kid is my desire.”

Officials, media and visiting coaches for many sports have noted Kanitz’ demeanor and contributions.  They also know he’ll do anything to make sure they have a good experience at St. Francis.

Among other things, Mike reportedly once became a makeshift tailor when a basketball official showed up without his referee pants. Mostly using safety pins, a borrowed pair of pants went from 2XL to large in time for tip-off.

“Mike Kanitz should have a name tag that says, ‘Nicest Man on the Planet,’” said former St. Francis AD Tom Hardy. “Mike is the perfect representative that you can have for any event at school.

Mike Kanitz enjoys his daughter Delin’s Senior Night game with wife Marcy Verplank-Kanitz. “He greets every team, official, and spectator with such grace and compassion, which leads to a very positive experience for all involved,” Hardy continued. “Mike has volunteered too many hours to count at basketball and soccer games as a game manager and coach.”

Hardy believes all sports fans need to follow Kanitz’ lead.

“Mike Kanitz is the example of how people should treat each other at any athletic event,” he said. “You truly would have to look long and hard to find a more compassionate and caring individual, and I would challenge anyone to find a person that has a negative thing to say about him.”

Barb Becket, a longtime MHSAA official and assignor, has similar views of Kanitz. She’s worked with him while he’s served as a coach, game manager and during community activities through her role with the Grand Traverse YMCA.

“Mike is the go-to guy,” she said. “He is a servant in the true sense of the word.

“Besides being the go-to guy for coaches, admin, and players, Mike also acts as the liaison between the sports officials and the sports participants,” she continued. “Mike handles his responsibilities with grace, humility, common sense, and accountability.”

Kanitz’ favorite sport to play is baseball, but his favorite sport to coach is basketball. After graduating from Alma College where he competed in track & field, he was thrilled to move back to Traverse City to start a family with his wife Marcy, a Traverse City obstetrician. 

The couple’s three children graduated from St. Francis, and Kanitz first focused on elementary baseball.  He was able to step away from his pharmaceutical career to step in and fill pretty much any need the St. Francis community had.

Kanitz points to his wife’s passion for caring for women as a motivator for him to get more girls involved in sports and receiving the benefits they provide.

“Marcy spent her whole life taking care of women,” he said. “So she sees the side effects of women not being given opportunities.

“So we’ve got to correct that stuff.”

Kanitz’s first job was as a water boy, along with his siblings born to Hugo and Margo Kanitz. If he ever can’t coach or serve in other capacities for the Gladiators, he hopes to return to the very first job he had as a preschooler.

“I am sincere when I say I started as a water boy, and I am going to finish as a water boy,” Kanitz said. “I am very blessed and I am thankful for the life I’ve had here in Traverse City.

“I am thankful for the school allowing me to be a part of it.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net 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) Mike Kanitz fills many roles for Traverse City St. Francis including girls junior varsity basketball coach and game manager for a variety of sports including volleyball. (Middle) Kanitz walks the sideline during one of his games leading the JV Gladiators. (Below) Mike Kanitz enjoys his daughter Delin’s Senior Night game with wife Marcy Verplank-Kanitz. (Top photo by Mike Spencer; middle and below photos by Julie English.)