Career Wins Record Reflection of Towler's Dedication to Genesee County HS Hockey

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 10, 2024

Jeff Rouse called his former hockey coach Doug Towler one of the most intense people he’s met. 

Bay & Thumb“He was a (butt)-kicker,” Rouse said. “You knew Doug was the boss. If you weren’t listening in practice, you were skating, or he was breaking hockey sticks over the net.”

But when Rouse had the opportunity to attend a party celebrating Towler setting the MHSAA all-time coaching wins record recently, he and some of his former Grand Blanc teammates, who played for Towler during the 1980s, made sure to be there. And to see the emotion on Towler’s face as he walked into Madden’s Bar in Davison greeted by dozens of his former players made it more than worth it.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Doug Towler as a coach, and even as a friend after,” Rouse said. “He’s always been a good dude. … We’re all just fortunate to have been blessed to skate for the man.”

Hundreds of players at Flint Northern, Grand Blanc, Davison and now with the Genesee Generals – a second-year co-op team with athletes from Davison, Flushing, Goodrich and Swartz Creek – have had the opportunity to play for Towler over his more than 40-year career. And on Saturday, Dec. 23, they all became part of history.

The Generals defeated Bay Area Thunder 3-2 that night, giving Towler his 630th career victory, sending him past Mike Turner of Trenton for most all-time for a hockey coach in Michigan. 

Towler knew it was on the horizon, but didn’t want to bring attention to it – “That’s so Doug,” Rouse remarked – as he didn’t want to put extra pressure on his players.

But when he stepped into Madden’s, it all started to get to Towler.

“When I got to the party that they had, it was a surprise, obviously,” said Towler, who now has 631 wins. “I got there and I see the guys I work with at (IMA Brookwood Golf Club), and I see some old players, and it did kind of hit me a little bit. It was, honestly, it was great. It was a fun night. A couple of the (Flint) Powers coaches came over after their game, and there was a Grand Blanc coach there, and so it was a nice night. There were a lot of laughs, a lot of stories. And I’m sure, you know, over the years, those stories have gotten bigger.”

One doesn’t need to exaggerate when telling tales of Towler’s career, though.

The Sarnia, Ontario, native played college hockey at the University of New Hampshire and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, playing in their minor league system for two years. His pro career took him to Austria, but he returned to North America to play for the Flint Generals of the International Hockey League. After one full season with the Generals and an injury-shortened second IHL season played in Flint and Saginaw, Towler joined the coaching ranks, taking over the Flint Northern program in 1979.

After two seasons at Northern, he spent a decade at Grand Blanc, winning three Regional titles between 1981-91. He took over the Davison program in 1992, and over his 30 years with the program he’s won eight Regional titles, made four trips to the Semifinals and two MHSAA Finals appearances.

“I played for him for three years, and I’ve known Coach Towler for a long time, and personal accolades were never on his radar,” said Albert Mitchell, who played for Towler from 2001-03 and helped Davison finish as Finals runner-up in 2002 and 2003. “He was always about wanting to make guys better hockey players, and better young men.”

It’s that philosophy that not only helped Towler win more games than any other hockey coach in the state – Traverse City Central’s Chris Givens is second among active coaches, and entered the season with 428 wins – but made so many former players want to be there for him when the milestone was celebrated.

“It’s safe to say that, for me, I don’t believe I would have ever played high school hockey if it wasn’t for Coach Towler,” said Mitchell, who went on to play at Elmira College in New York and is now the coach of the Fenton-Linden Area high school team. “Coach Towler is somebody that my dad respected and he wanted me to play for, and fortunately I did. I was fortunate to go on and play at the next level, and without Coach Towler, I don’t think I would have been able to do that.”

As fun as the party was, it came dangerously close to not being a celebration of a new record. The Generals led Bay Area 3-0, but allowed a pair of third-period goals that put the game in doubt. Assistant coach Ryan Welch, who had helped arrange the afterparty, said there were some extra nerves down the stretch.

“Was I nervous? Hell yeah, I was nervous,” Welch said with a laugh. “We had planned it two weeks before, and we played Friday and Saturday of that week, so we had to win both of them. We ended up winning 3-2 in Tawas and won 3-2 in Bay City. One of the coaches, Tony Perry, he rarely says anything, and he was chirping the whole game. I do think there was a little bit of nerves with everyone. Doug had his whole family here, and I’m sure our kids were nervous – we didn’t play the very best. Everyone was a little bit nervous because they wanted to be a part of this history.”

Welch, who played for Towler from 2002-06, is one of his three longtime assistants, although his 12-year tenure is much shorter than the others. Both Tony Perry and Charlie Eakes have been with Towler for more than 30 years.

Welch, Rouse and Mitchell all marveled at Towler’s ability to span multiple generations of athletes during his time as a high school coach. But they all are less surprised that Towler could pull it off, and more in awe of what he’s done.

“He’s had a lifelong commitment to the game of hockey at the high school level,” Welch said. “Usually, coaches start to have a little success and they move on. He’s had a lot of patience throughout the years. That tells you that he enjoys coaching these varsity athletes. It takes a tremendous person these days to stick with it. Over 40 years, the generations have changed, and he’s had to change the way he does things. It shows his love for the game of hockey, it shows his love for the community and his commitment to the Genesee County area.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTO (Top) Genesee Generals hockey coach Doug Towler, far right, celebrates his record 630th win with family Dec. 23. (Photo courtesy of the Davison athletic department.) VIDEO Towler addresses his team after a 2020 win over Flint Powers Catholic.

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.)