Mark Keeler’s passion for sports led him much success on the court, contentment off
Wyoming – Mark Keeler’s first love was chasing after fly balls, smacking pitches all over his hometown Little League diamond and dreaming of being Al Kaline.
Which he admits is a far cry from where he stands five decades later.
"I was always a Tigers fan; I loved Al Kaline and loved playing baseball," said Keeler, 63, who instead has spent more than half of his life coaching the boys basketball team at Wyoming Tri-unity Christian High School.
Keeler isn’t completely sure when his priority shifted from fretting over where the Tigers stood in the American League standings to a love of basketball. He was by his own admission a mediocre high school basketball player who by sheer desire wound up playing for a coach at Southern Bible College in Houston who sparked his interest in teaching the game. Despite the coach’s tragic death dying in a car accident during Keeler’s junior year, the basketball bug had already been planted. Keeler moved to Grand Rapids in 1978 and joined Tri-unity as a middle school coach five years later.
From there, it’s been a straight shot to becoming the winningest coach in the Grand Rapids area history while having a new basketball court named in his honor.
"I knew my college coach cared about me and I knew that’s what I wanted to be," Keeler said. "My priority was being at a Christian school and working with Jesus Christ and using basketball to sharpen and mold young boys into men."
In addition to that sharpening and molding, he’s had tremendous success. It’s a career that includes a remarkable 571-181 career record, 19 conference titles, 21 district and 14 regional titles,10 state semifinal appearances and four state titles in 31 years. He’s received coach of the year recognition, in various forms, 16 times.
It’s definitely a far cry from Keeler’s earliest days when he’d plow through the morning snow and freezing temperatures to be there when the doors of the Alanson Junior High gymnasium would be thrown open to students interested in getting in a little court time before school opened. Alanson is small community located just north of Petoskey.
Keeler said there is no secret what has kept him fixated on basketball for over 30 years. Keeler said he still thrives on competition, still loves mixing Christian values into his coaching, and enjoys the Xs and Os part of the game. Put it all together and there’s been no reason to consider moving along, though Keeler admits to having been wooed by two colleges in Minnesota and California and "twice by a large school" in Grand Rapids.
Instead, he’s content to remain at a Class D school with an enrollment ranging from 100-to-200 students. One of his proudest moments recently came when donors insisted the basketball court at the new high school be named in his honor.
"I didn’t know when I took the job how long I would be here," said Keeler, who can trace his strong religious background to a father who was a pastor. "For me, it’s not about basketball, it’s about relationships. I’m happy to be here; I feel very blessed. I know I’m around people who care for me and my family."
That sentiment works both ways. Tri-unity captains Bennett Sinner and Jared Blauwkamp both have experienced enough of Keller’s coaching and off-court values to understand what makes their coach tick.
"He’s a blast off the court, but on the court, he’s all business," said Sinner, a junior and three-time captain. "He knows what it takes to win and knows how to get it done. He’ll find a player’s strength and use it to the team’s advantage."
Blauwkamp, whose older brother Adam played on the 2006 state champion team and who first met his coach as a 6-year-old, said Keeler’s success is a combination of believing in the Lord, extorting the value of defense, knowing what buttons to push among players and being humble.
"He knows how to get you to perform better by being both hard and encouraging," Blauwkamp said. "I’ve loved every second of playing for him."
Keeler insists he has one big advantage over younger coaches. In an age when parental involvement is arguably at an all-time high, Keeler said he appreciates being past the second-guessing of "coaches" in the stands. Because parents have witnessed the success and what he hopes has been a positive effect on players, Keeler said he doesn’t have to worry about those who second guess his decisions. Keeler presides over a program-wide meeting every three or four years with parents and players to spell out in no uncertain terms his philosophy.
The meeting typically leaves everyone on the same page, Keeler said.
"I care about the individual, but also what’s best for the team. I lay everything out," he said. "I’ve been blessed here, I know that. I’ve been very happy with the quality of individual I’ve worked with here.
"Why would I leave?"