Next Play: Heart of the Matter

June 25, 2015

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

From the retirement of NFL players in their mid-20s fearing long-term disability, to NASCAR drivers suffering injuries against concrete walls when alternative substances are available, to MLB outfielders running into barriers which place aesthetics and tradition over safety, the focus of highlight shows, apps and old-fashioned sports pages is shifting from action inside the lines to the sidelines.

As the reality of human vulnerability continues to invade our favorite escape from reality – athletics – protecting those in the spotlight needs to be Job 1.

While the quest for risk management protocols and health and safety provisions is a never-ending loop, the MHSAA bolted from the starting blocks with a 4H plan (Health Histories, Heads, Heat and Hearts) in the fall of 2009, a mission that enters the fourth turn for the 2015-16 school year.

And, as pulse quickens for the “Heart” stage in the fall, the MHSAA will continue to step up initiatives involving the other three initiatives during the next lap.Think of it as a continuous relay, where the baton is never dropped and fresh runners continue the race.

While organizations at other levels might be asking, “What to do,” the MHSAA is focusing on “What’s next?” 

In this playbook the next plays are critical in allowing student-athletes to continue providing their communities with inexpensive and entertaining breaks from reality.

The Heart of the Matter

The 2015-16 school year brings with it an ambitious but paramount stage in the MHSAA’s mission to protect and promote the well being of student-athletes across the state.

Beginning in the fall, all high school varsity coaches will need to have Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certification by established deadlines which correspond to rules meetings.

The requirement is new, and the volume of personnel affected is vast. Yet, plans have been in place during the past few years, and schools in many communities are ahead of the curve.

“We’ve fielded some questions regarding the requirement, but I think that many of our schools  already have similar protocols in place,” said MHSAA assistant director Kathy Vruggink Westdorp. “Increasingly, schools have become more prudent with regards to health and safety, and programs which emphasize these initiatives have been well received.”

Pete Ryan, MHSAA Representative Council member and athletic director for Saginaw Township Community Schools, concurs.

“The CPR requirement will not be a change for Heritage, as we have required CPR for eight years,” Ryan said. “We offer certification through our district nurse at no charge to the coaches and train about 20-30 coaches per year.”

The training vehicle might vary from district to district, but so long as the end result is certification, the coaches are free to take course by any means possible, whether online or in person.

“I think we’ll see a blend of online and classroom delivery,” Westdorp said. “And, I don’t think it will be just the coaches. At the MIAAA Conference (in March), school leaders were proactive in terms of certification for athletic directors, too.”

Mike Bakker, President of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and athletic director at Fenton High School, says CPR certification is a must in the risk management plans for all school settings.

“As an educator who has been a CPR and first aid instructor for the American Heart Association for a number of years, I am excited that the MHSAA will require CPR training for varsity coaches,” Bakker said. 

“I certainly hope that in the future we will see that all coaches are trained in CPR. There might be a bit of a challenge at first to get our coaches trained, as schools look for the most economical as well as timely way to accomplish this mandate. The biggest hurdle that I can foresee is trying to find qualified trainers in all areas of the state that have multiple training dates available to fit the needs of such diverse coaching staffs.”  

Ryan believes there is no substitute for the personal touch.

“We are doing in-person training which I feel is better because the individuals have to perform the procedure on the practice dummy," he said. "It’s simply more hands-on training.”

School nurses and trainers will play a substantial role in the certification process, as will community health organizations in many locales.

“In many of our schools, the health educators are certified to conduct CPR courses,” Westdorp said. “We’ve also had numerous calls from non-school entities alerting us to their availability to provide training, such as fire departments and local medical centers.”

Fenton is one such school with the luxury of on-site personnel to train its staff.

“We are fortunate in Fenton that our athletic trainer and athletic director are certified trainers so we can accomplish our training in-house, but I know that not all schools are as fortunate,” Bakker said.

Which is exactly why it’s necessary for coaches to become certified, and ideally not just the head coaches.

“It should be encouraged that all coaching staff become CPR certified so that they are able to take action, especially for schools which do not have an athletic trainer on staff and if the head coach is unavailable or present, in the unfortunate event that a potential cardiac emergency and/or sudden-death incident occurs,” said certified athletic trainer Gretchen Mohney, the Clinical Coordinator and Instructor for Western Michigan University Undergraduate Athletic Training Program.

Mark Mattson, athletic director at Traverse City Central, indicated that while not previously a requirement, the district has been proactive in prepping the coaches.

“From the moment the requirement was announced, we've been out in front of it,” Mattson said. “What’s great is, even though it hasn’t been a requirement for Traverse City Area Public Schools, many coaches are indeed already certified. The district also offers training sessions once a month and those dates are passed on to our coaches. Jason Carmien (AD at Traverse City West) and I have also had conversations about providing training at our preseason coaches meeting for those still in need prior to the start of the fall season.”

Coaches can also count on a familiar training source to come through for certification: the MHSAA Coaches Advancement Program. Westdorp, who heads up the expansive continuing education program for the state’s coaches, envisions coursework at select sites which will build CPR training into the session, giving attendees more added incentive and training opportunities.

CAP has also served as a siren to inform and remind the MHSAA’s constituents about the upcoming regulation.

“In all CAP courses this school year, we’ve been educating the coaches about the CPR requirement,” Westdorp said. “We also can format the courses to include a two-hour block for CPR certification within the CAP training. We could even do it with a league and conference group where we set up rotations, and the CPR aspect would be one of the rotations.”

Westdorp added that many athletic directors currently schedule coaches meetings and additional coursework around CAP training. It’s a perfect fit to deliver pertinent messages while all parties are in one location.

Such gatherings could also provide the opportunity for athletic leaders to share emergency action plans.

Along with the CPR component of the MHSAA’s health mission for the coming school year, schools will be asked to have in place and rehearse emergency action plans involving cardiac and other health-related emergencies.

To assist, schools will receive this summer the “Anyone Can Save a Life” program developed by the Minnesota State High School League and endorsed and delivered nationally by the National Federation of State High School Associations (check back for more on this program later this week).

“The ‘Anyone Can Save A Life’ initiative promotes the need to have and to practice planning for different kinds of emergencies; it involves students as well as adults; and it invites schools to include their previously existing  plans,” said MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts.

“The result can be a fresh, comprehensive emphasis on preparing for emergencies well before they occur and then responding with more confidence when those emergencies inevitably happen. It is the perfect link between the last two years when we focused on heat illness and the next two years when we focus on sudden cardiac arrest,” Roberts added.

It will also be of primary concern to place automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in all schools and provide training for use of the devices.

The reasoning behind such a full-court press can be backed by simple facts. 

  • At any one time, an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population congregates on school grounds, increasing the likelihood of school-based cardiac emergencies.
  • Victims of SCA can be brought back to life by providing chest compressions and early defibrillation with an AED.
  • Every second counts. When SCA occurs, chest compressions and the use of an AED need to start immediately.
  • The AED can only help and will only deliver a shock if it is needed.
  • The AED is very easy to use. Just turn it on and follow the voice prompts.

The best way to combat such situations is to create an atmosphere of preparedness; making sure all people in close proximity to potential victims can respond with quickness, confidence and precision to help reduce fatalities.

“In order for best practices to be achieved, it will require coordinated efforts to establish a quality emergency action plan among the entire athletic department staff, which should be practiced annually. This should be viewed as the first line of preparedness and defense in sports safety,” said James Lioy, an adjunct professor in athletic training at WMU who was named Michigan High School Athletic Trainer of the year in 2000-01.

That’s the goal of action plans such as those included in MHSAA CAP Levels and the Anyone Can Save A Life program.

“We've taken the ‘know-how’ out of it. You don't have to know how to perform the medical procedures to be trained and prepared as part of an effective emergency response team,” said Jody Redman, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League and one of the authors of the Anyone Can Save a Life program.

A common refrain in athletics to assign perspective on sport in society is, “It’s just a game; it’s not life or death.”

However, in the most dire of circumstances, participants indeed can be faced with life or death. Knowing how to respond can make all the difference.

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.)