UP Schools Big & Small Find Multi-Sport Success

January 10, 2020

By Dennis Grall
For the Second Half

ESCANABA – It should not come as a surprise that the Class A school with the highest percentage of multi-sport athletes has an athletic director who lived that life.

Alex Tiseo, athletic director at Marquette High School, received 15 varsity letters while he was a student at the school, including as a three-sport participant for two years in the fall alone. Tiseo played soccer for four years while running cross country for three years and playing football for two. He also played basketball and ran track.

He is not taking any credit for the excess of multi-sport athletes at his alma mater. "It is the foundation of the thing, the culture of the coaches," Tiseo said of all the school's coaches supporting and encouraging all-around athletic participation.

"It is the benefit and mentality of getting away from (athletic) specialization," Tiseo said, noting an athlete may be "a leader in one sport and just a role player" in another.

He also pointed out athletes are not penalized when they have to miss practices or events because of their heavy extracurricular participation.

According to the most recent multi-sport participation survey conducted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, Marquette had the highest percentage of multi-sport athletes among all Class A schools in 2018-19 with a whopping 85.9 percent. Grand Rapids Northview, at 83.1 percent, was the only other large school above 80 percent.

Four Class B schools and six Class C schools topped the 80-percent mark while 14 Class D schools surpassed 80 percent, including three topping 90 percent, led by Gaylord St. Mary (93.2).

Marquette, unlike many larger schools, does allow students to participate in more than one sport in the same season. Many small schools, simply because of the lower enrollment, also allow students to compete in more than one sport during the same season.

"It is near and dear to my heart," Tiseo said of seeing multi-sport participation. Students must pick a priority sport if practices or games would conflict on the same date. "For me, it was cross country," Tiseo said, noting his soccer and football coaches knew he was getting plenty of running in that primary sport. In football, he was a place-kicker, which made it easier if he had to miss a practice. 

He would often kick with his dad, he said, agreeing that a primary position player may have found it harder to miss a practice or game.

He also pointed out that in fall sports, "one-third of the season comes before school starts" and fall sports ended in mid to late October, reducing the number of potential conflicts.

Tiseo said multi-sport athletes work closely with their coaches to arrange practice schedules: "If coaches have difficulty with the kids in putting the schedule together, there is a caveat there where I can help." To date he has not needed to assist.

Students and coaches alike "reinforce the importance of academics," Tiseo said. "Multi-sport athletes are definitely among our highest academic achievers."

Athletes realize, he said, the importance of staying academically eligible so they can compete in their athletic endeavors.

Tiseo also has noticed student-athletes in general maintain better attitudes, which permeates the hallways and classrooms and benefits the general student body.

Success in athletics can generally bolster improved spirit and attitude in school. He said there is a general attitude of wanting to participate in something "when you see your peers having fun." The long Upper Peninsula winters also help encourage students to participate in athletics to help the time speed along. "It also correlates with the success of the teams," he said.

Two other Upper Peninsula schools have also found outstanding multi-sport participation, with Class B Gladstone at 86.7 percent and Class D Watersmeet with 90.3 percent during 2018-19.

First-year Gladstone athletic director Dave Lindbeck said "I strongly promote for kids to go to the next level. When I hire a new coach, I ask them how they feel about (multi-sport participation)."

Like Tiseo, Lindbeck also encourages athletes to get involved in programs for lifting weights and nutritional growth. Tiseo said proper conditioning and nutrition "help lessen the risk of injury" and playing multiple sports allows students to use different sets of muscles in those various activities. "You don't see over-use injuries" he said.

Lindbeck said "a good strength and conditioning program involves everything, including in-season and off-season workouts and help them maintain strength. We're not asking kids to bulk up. There is a lot of strength and flexibility (training), working (various) muscle groups, strengthen(ing) ligaments."

Lindbeck said the Braves' coaches are encouraged to attend games in the wide selection of activities, which shows students they care.

He also said it is easy to see how students grow in athletics and socially as they raise their participation levels. "You see how they communicate, you see it in the hallways," he said.

He also noted it has a big impact on their classroom work. "Those who don't participate don't do as well," he said, noting B-C students tend to improve their grade-point averages as they increase their involvement. "Kids seldom have issues with their grades.

"It is so crucial to be involved with sports," Lindbeck added. "The ones who do it really value it. We use it as a carrot, a motivator. It also keeps the structure and holds each other accountable."

Watersmeet has only 44 students this school year – up from 36 last year – but the Nimrods definitely are a school and community-oriented program.

Pizza parties, camping trips and cook-outs are among projects to encourage students to participate in sports, and fund-raisers are used to buy warm-ups for players in grades 6-12. "We dress them up so they look special," said long-time administrator-coach George Peterson.

"We work hard to get them to enjoy all the sports."

The board of education uses the Nimrod Fund to help students "dress up and be a part of it," said Peterson, who indicated much of that financial opportunity comes from the memorable 2003-04 season when ESPN coined the "Nimrod Nation" program.

That spring the boys basketball team appeared on The Tonight Show, and the Sundance Channel did a series on the school/town in 2006.

Peterson said the school realized $500,000 in gross revenue as a result of that national exposure and still averages $10-13,000 a year in profits. "I still pinch myself. I still can't believe it happened," Peterson said of that exposure and financial benefit.

Watersmeet has girls volleyball and offers cross country country, basketball, track and golf for boys and girls. "They are proud to be out there," said Peterson. "They have to conduct themselves in a respectful manner.”

The MHSAA study revealed nearly 43 percent of state prep athletes participated in two or more sports in 2018-19. It also indicated "early and intense sport specialization has become one of the most serious issues related to health and safety at all levels of youth sports, with overuse injuries and burnout among athletes tied to chronic injuries and health-related problems later in life."

The survey found 45.1 percent of boys and 40.4 percent of girls participated in more than one sport.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette's Maria Millado (40) works to get a pass past a Traverse City West defender last season; Millado also runs track for the Redettes. (Middle) Gladstone's Luke Van Brocklin crosses the finish line to finish second in the 400 meters at last spring's Upper Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Finals; he played football this fall. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)

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.)