Westland John Glenn's Polk Passes 500 Coaching Wins, Looks Forward to Future

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

February 21, 2023

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Greater DetroitWhen Bill Polk was a high school wrestler at Dearborn High School, he lost his last match – at the MHSAA Finals – to a wrestler from Westland John Glenn.

Now, 30 years later, Polk is racking up wins on behalf of John Glenn as the Rockets’ varsity wrestling coach. Earlier this season, Polk collected career victory No. 500 and sees no end in sight for his ultra-successful wrestling career.

“I still have the passion,” said Polk. “About 15 minutes after we lost in the Regionals, I was meeting with our assistants and talking about camps and jotting down our lineup for 2023-24.”

Polk has been a fixture at John Glenn since graduating from Olivet College and landing a teaching job with the Westland district. Wrestling played a role in that as well.

“The head coach that was leaving contacted me and asked if I would be willing to come in,” Polk said. “We got into a conversation about it, and I talked him into staying a little longer and helping me out. It was nice he stuck around for two years and gave me the reigns.”

His first season as head coach at John Glenn was 2000-01, when the team went a modest 9-6. The Rockets won 17 matches both of the next two winters and 27 in 2003-04.

“I thought I would be winning state titles in a couple of years,” Polk said. “I had no clue of the intricacies it took to do such a thing. It’s been a good journey.”

John Glenn has made five trips to the MHSAA Team Finals, reaching the final four once.

And, Polk added, “there have been about a dozen times where we were one match away.”

He’s done a masterful job of putting together a great foundation at John Glenn.

“It’s not easy. It took 10 years before we had our first final eight appearance. There’s a lot that goes into building a program – changing the culture, building a youth program, getting everything set in the summer. It took some time for all of that and to get buy-in.”

The sport has changed dramatically during his 25 years of coaching, from the year-round training to the tremendous impact that youth wrestling has had on the sport across the state.

“Wrestling has changed so much since then,” he said. “About 20 years ago, you took a few kids to camp and had some summer open mats. Now, the kids are coming into ninth grade ready to wrestle. It’s phenomenal. Our youth program has 90 kids involved. I couldn’t imagine that 20 years ago. What youth wrestling has grown into is absolutely crazy.”

Polk has always welcomed his former wrestlers back to contribute to the program, from youth to junior high to the varsity level. In fact, nearly all of the assistant coaches and youth coaches wrestled for him.

“The group I have now, for the most part, all wrestled for me, were super successful, are young guys and they know the system,” Polk said. “I’m there and part of it, but I’m more or less invisible now. They know what they are doing and are super passionate about it and do an outstanding job. I’m very fortunate with that.”

John Glenn won its 18th District title this year under Polk but lost 36-27 to Temperance Bedford in a Division 1 Regional Semifinal. The Rockets and Mules seem to run into each other every year, and there have been some great state tournament battles.

One of Polk’s signature dual meet wins was against the Mules.

“The first year we finally beat Bedford was huge,” Polk said. “That was a big one. That was the 2008-09 season. That was a statement that we made it and our team was known as a competitive team. The best part about that is we’ve been able to maintain that and stay near the top. We really haven’t had a lot of down years from there.”

At first, Polk’s 500th career win came and went without anyone noticing. He saw a local newspaper report about a coach that had won match No. 400, and his assistant coaches began asking how many wins he had. That was about 14 wins after No. 500, which came Dec. 14 against Dearborn Edsel Ford.

“I told those guys not to say anything and, of course, they made a big deal out of it,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s a good milestone to hit. I just didn’t want it to distract from the task at hand. I kind of feel like a small-town celebrity now. The community was pretty excited about it.”

His 2021-22 team won 32 matches, as did his 2009-10 team. This year’s squad went 29-6. 

His record now stands at 522-145.

It’s fitting that he has won so many dual meets, because dual meets are one of his favorite parts about the sport. Twenty or so years ago, dual meets made up only a fraction of the season, but today they are a big part.

“It’s my favorite part – the research that goes into trying to bump guys around to win those big meets,” he said. “It’s a chess match. It’s part of what makes it fun.”

The atmosphere surrounding a big dual meet or quad, he said, can be electric.

“You can’t substitute that environment,” he said. “The team aspect is my favorite. Everyone is involved, from your all-staters to your first-year ninth graders. They can all be there and be part of it, not just four or five guys.”

Polk has coached six Individual Finals champions and nearly 90 placers as well.

As a college wrestler, Polk qualified for the nationals three times at Olivet and was team captain his senior season. It was sometime during his junior year that he realized he wanted to remain with the sport after college.

“I just started thinking I wanted to be involved,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time or what, but coaching was something that started interesting me. I hadn’t been involved in the sport for very long at that time. I wasn’t a youth wrestler or anything. I’m still very passionate about it.”

Polk just turned 49. He has no plans to step away from coaching anytime soon.

“I love it. I’m fortunate to be in a good place surrounded with good people. I’m still having fun. I still really enjoy it,” he said. “I’m going to keep going. I don’t know if I will be one of those guys who are in it 40-50 years, but I’m going to go for a while.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTO Westland John Glenn coach Bill Polk holds up a banner honoring his 500th victory. (Photo courtesy of the Westland John Glenn 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.)