EAST LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Mark Keeler took the podium and adjusted his glasses and looked out at the media with a smile.
It wasn’t the first go around for the 40-year tenured teacher and head coach at Tri Unity Christian High School. He’s won with a lot of different teams in a lot of different ways.
Does it ever get old?
“Oh no, it’s just a new group of boys every year,” Keeler said. “We have a great tradition, it never gets old. These kids buy in every year and it’s been a fun ride.”
Thursday night, his team got the job done with gritty play inside and defeated Frankfort 54-37 in the Division 4 state semifinal game, sending the Defenders (22-6) to a third consecutive appearance in the state championship game with a chance for back-to-back state titles. They will take on Munising at 10 a.m. Saturday.
“I’ve had some groups of kids that it is like pulling teeth to get them to stay together, that’s not how it is with this group,” Keeler said. “It’s just been a fun ride and if it wasn’t for them it wouldn’t be happening.”
The Defenders were having no trouble at all early on with Frankfort, building a 21-8 lead midway through the second quarter. It forced a timeout from Frankfort.
It worked as the Frankfort Panthers closed the half on a 13-4 run and trailed just four, 25-21 at the break.
Keeler felt his team was playing good defense that entire stretch; Frankfort’s Kerby Carter (who led all scorers with 21 points) was just hitting good contested shots.
“I think in the second half shots didn’t fall as easy for them because we have a lot of depth and I can rotate about eight guys,” Keeler said. “We did a good job of pushing the ball up in transition and wearing them down as the game went along.”
They did just that as Owen Rosendall triple capped off an 11-5 run, making it 36-26 in favor of the Defenders. They took a 40-27 lead into the fourth and never had to look back.
Rosendall was on last year’s state championship team and showed his experience played a vital role, leading the Defenders with 13 points, adding three rebounds.
It took time for this team to come together and make a run, he said.
“Earlier in the season we had some ups and downs, like tying for (a conference title),” Rosendall said. “We stuck to it and kept working and improved our defense, it showed tonight when we went cold and stuck with it. Eventually we got it going.”
Roy Fogg was second in scoring for Tri Unity with 11 points and the only other to score in double figures. He also added eight rebounds. Akiais Giplaye crashed the glass hard for the Defenders, tallying 11 boards while adding six points.
For junior Jordan VanKlompenburg, it is his third consecutive time heading to the state title game. He experienced a loss in 2021, a win last year and now has a chance for a second. It’s been a run he only thought he could dream of happening.
“It’s been a really great experience with a lot of different guys but it always feels the same,” VanKlompenburg said. “We’re always a close unit by this time and I’m looking forward to battling on Saturday for another one.”
A huge point in the game for how Tri Unity outmatched Frankfort was on the offensive glass, where it won the battle 21-5. Overall, they out-rebounded Frankfort 41-22.
Munising (25-1) is the opponent the Defenders will take on for the state title. If the Defenders win, it will be Keeler’s sixth state championship as the head coach of Tri Unity.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” Keeler said. “I’ve been a part of this family at Tri Unity Christian for a long time and I can’t wait to see what this group can do.”