Fund Helps Love for Comstock Live On

By Pam Shebest
Special for

August 21, 2018

COMSTOCK TOWNSHIP — Several years ago, Josh Whitfield and his sister, Mandy Hanson, were sitting around a bonfire just chatting when they touched on a subject that fired up the normally easy-going Comstock High School graduate.

Whitfield had started helping coach the girls soccer team and realized that to be involved in sports, Comstock athletes had to “pay to play.”

“It takes a lot to get him riled up, to get him angry or upset,” Hanson said. “He was talking about, ‘Can you believe it? You have to pay to play sports at Comstock.’

“I was like, that’s crazy. He was getting so upset talking about it. Some of these girls paid to play but then couldn’t afford the right equipment.”

Whitfield, a 2000 grad and four-year multi-sport athlete at Comstock, said he wished he had enough money to help out.

That opportunity would come out of the saddest of circumstances. But as his loved ones continue to heal from Whitfield’s untimely death in 2015, they’ve created an opportunity for his memory to impact the Comstock athletic community for years to come.

That May, while playing golf with friends, including Hanson’s husband Mike, Whitfield said he did not feel well and left the group on the second hole.

“Of course, the guys razzed him about it because it wasn’t like Josh to leave in the middle of a round of golf,” his sister said.

When Whitfield’s mother, Becky, called him at home later, he told her he was having trouble breathing. He called 9-1-1 and his dad, Vic, drove to his son’s house just as the EMTs arrived.

Whitfield did not survive, dying from a double lung collapse. He was just 33 years old.

Two of his buddies, Eric Stewart and Chad Howard, wanted to do something to keep Whitfield’s memory alive.

“We were all struggling a lot,” Stewart said. “Josh had an extremely tight-knit group of friends. It was really hard for a lot of us. We were talking about ways to spin positive out of grief.

“We were like, ‘What can we do to honor his memory, to keep his name alive?’

We thought it would mean something to his family. We knew it would mean something to Comstock, because Comstock is in a tough place right now.”

The buddies had the idea for a fundraiser to help a few Comstock athletes pay to play. They were hoping to raise at least $1,500 through an alumni soccer game.

They were stunned to raise $5,000.

‘Spinning positive out of grief’

Over three years, the group – which has gone from the two friends to a committee of 14 – has raised more than $52,000 and so far donated more than $27,000 of it to various athletic causes in Comstock.

“It started with Eric and Chad, who asked how they could help and wanted to set up an alumni soccer game to help offset the pay-to-play fees,” Comstock athletic director Justin Ansel said. “Initially, I wasn’t sure how big this would be or how sustainable this would be.

“Unfortunately, this entire thing was started by a tragedy. It’s a testament how, at Josh’s young age, how people rallied around him for this. It’s just special how the community comes together to remember Josh. We are thankful for what this organization does for our student-athletes.”

The fund has supplied about $5,000 for pay-to-play scholarships, helping more than 350 middle and high school athletes with activity fees and physical exam fees. But those have not been the group’s only focus.

“For example, someone might say I can’t pay the $75 for Rocket Football,” Stewart said. “We will approve that and send the check in to Rocket Football.

“We also do grants to teams and organizations focused on Comstock. We did Eastwood Little League through a $5,000 grant last year. We’re really excited to sponsor the First Day Shoe Fund. We bought all the kids in Comstock shoes. We know that a healthy lifestyle, teamwork, all are bred through athletics.”

This year, the group will have extra money available.

“As it happens, Comstock has a new superintendent this year in Jeff Thoenes,” Ansel said. “One of his first actions as superintendent was to remove our activity fee barrier so we no longer have this fee for the start of the 2018-19 school year. 

“They still plan to fund things like athlete equipment, needs like shoes or shin guards along with a variety of other things.”

Without the pay-to-play expenditures, Stewart said, “Our goal now is to really push toward those youth athletic programs: AYSO, Little League, youth football, youth golf camps, soccer camps. We’re creating feeders to the high school that otherwise don’t really exist at Comstock.”

With Comstock’s entry a few years ago into the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, teams travel more than 40 miles to many games. At first, the school transported athletes to the games, but parents took them home.

“Now the fund pays to bring kids home,” Stewart said. “Parents in poverty can’t drive that far to pick up their kids. That’s not OK, and we wanted to fix that.”

Continuing to grow

Once the original fund hit $5,000, Stewart and Howard did not want the sole responsibility of doling out the money.

“We said we need to vet this through a group of people,” Stewart said.

So they formed the non-profit Josh Whitfield Memorial Athletic Fund.

The board of directors is made up of Josh’s friends and family, and funds are distributed through the Comstock Community Center.

The committee sponsors three fundraisers each year: a golf outing, an alumni soccer game and a holiday party in December. It also accepts donations through its website (

The golf outing in June includes about “a quarter of the field with Whitfields,” Stewart said. “It’s always bittersweet when we get together for that reason, but I think it’s a good avenue to go through some of those things. Oftentimes it’s like a support group.”

The soccer tournament is set for Sept. 21 at the school.

“It started out as an alumni soccer game, and then we had people who weren’t alumni that wanted to play,” Hanson said. “We said of course.

“It’s just getting out there and having fun. Last year, the oldest was mid-40s and the youngest just graduated.”

Said Stewart: “We usually get about 50 who sign up. It’s a hoot. It’s a good time. Everybody’s getting older, but it’s fun to relive the glory days.”

The holiday party last December was held at Kalamazoo’s Tibbs Brewing Company, which donated a portion of the sales to the fund.

Hanson and brother Matt Whitfield are members of the committee, which meets once a month to review applications.

“A couple committee members work in Comstock schools, so they see what’s going on and they see a need,” Hanson said. “The committee generally takes a vote. If the applicant meets what we’ve set forth in the guidelines, then we do grant them the money.”

Applicants also can apply through the website, but must be connected to Comstock athletics.

All committee members are volunteers, with 100 percent of any money raised going into the fund.

Besides Stewart, Howard, Hanson and Matt Whitfield, board members are 

Sara Howard, Alyssa Stewart, Rolly Taylor, Travis and Marie Law, Tyler and Shannon Howard, Loreen Hospodar, Katy Seward and Mason Everett.

“It is amazing,” Hanson said. “It’s truly an honor. I think to myself, my gosh, Josh would be so humbled to know that this is happening because of him.

“I think secretly he’s laughin’ and lovin’ it up there.”

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Josh Whitfield in 2015, shortly before his death. (Top middle) Friend Eric Stewart, left, and Comstock athletic director Justin Ansel. (Middle) From top, Josh Whitfield playing wiffle ball, Josh and brother Matt Whitfield, and Josh and Stewart. (Below) Mandy Hanson, right, with daughter Madi. (Hanson photo by Pam Shebest; other photos submitted by Eric Stewart or Mandy Hanson.)

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.)