NFHS Voice: Thank You to All Coaches

January 29, 2021

By Karissa Niehoff
NFHS Executive Director

Earlier this week, the NFHS recognized more than 700 individuals for their efforts as high school coaches during the 2019-20 school year, including 23 as National Coaches of the Year. 

The accomplishments of the national recipients are extraordinary, but comments about their roles as education-based coaches are even more telling as to why they were selected. 

Mary Beth Bourgoin, field hockey coach at Winslow High School in Maine, who, although she has won 173 games, said, in an article in the Portland Press-Herald, “It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about relationships and having fun.” 

Donna Moir has won three state championships as girls basketball coach at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, but is known more for her sportsmanship, humility and kindness. 

Jerry Petitgoue, basketball coach at Cuba City (Wisconsin) High School, who has won 963 games in 53 years, led his team to an unblemished 25-0 record before the pandemic cancelled the state tournament. 

In an article for, Petitgoue said, “I’m very proud to receive this recognition for Cuba City High School and the community. I’m happy it comes during these trying times. Every little positive thing is uplifting these days.” 

Mary Jo Truesdale, softball coach at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, California, has won 759 games and eight California Interscholastic Federation-Sac Joaquin Section championships, but was unable to coach her team last spring due to the pandemic. 

“I worry about the well-being of my players, especially the seniors who don’t have a next season to play in high school,” said Truesdale in an article in the Sacramento Bee. “We know there are more things going on in life that are much bigger than softball, and that’s what we’re all learning.”

Ron Murphy, baseball coach at Rio Rancho (New Mexico) High School, is second all-time in his state with 567 victories but was only able to lead his team to a few wins last spring before the coronavirus shut down the program and ended hopes for a state tournament. 

Despite his own success, Murphy was more focused on his players in a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal, noting that, “The thing that gets me most excited about this award is that it brings national attention to Rio Rancho High School baseball.”

Doug Hislop, wrestling coach at Imbler (Oregon) High School, has coached for 50 years and remains active at 73 years of age, continuing to teach kids lessons on and off the mat. 

David Halligan, soccer coach at Falmouth (Maine) High School, has led his teams to 12 state titles. In an article in the Portland Press Herald, Halligan said, “I’m proud that we’ve had a lot of good players and good programs for a lot of years. I find a lot of joy in coaching at the high school level. I love seeing how kids develop from freshmen to seniors and how they grow as people.”

These are but a few of the individuals selected for national honors in 2019-20 – all of whom have impacted student-athletes in positive ways for decades. 

When it comes to honoring coaches for the 2020-21 school year, we should give a shout-out to every individual involved in high school education-based athletics for their tremendous efforts leading programs through the pandemic. Next to frontline health-care workers, there is no group of individuals to whom we should be more indebted than high school coaches. 

Prior to the pandemic, a high school coach’s job was already a next-to-impossible 24-7 mission. In addition to preparing for the daily “Xs and Os,” interscholastic coaches spend countless hours in mentorship capacities with student-athletes off the field or court, answer tough questions from parents, teach classes during the school day and handle a number of never-ending, always-changing daily tasks. 

This year, coaches are faced with other tasks related to COVID-19, which, in some cases, involve keeping team members connected and motivated in a virtual setting. 

There is pressure on coaches to maintain protocols related to the pandemic and stay on course so the games can continue. The additional daily checklist is endless: sanitize equipment, remind students to wear masks and maintain social distancing, temperature and wellness checks with students, follow an endless list of protocols if a student tests positive, and the list goes on and on. 

The tasks of high school coaches seem larger than life this year, and these men and women deserve our utmost respect and appreciation. In addition to parents, and perhaps in lieu of parents in some cases, high school coaches are helping student-athletes survive the pandemic and maintain a healthy outlook on life.

We salute this year’s award recipients – and all high school coaches – for their commitment to keeping our country’s future leaders – high school students – on track during one of the most trying years in our nation’s history. 

Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is starting her third year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.

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.)