By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
WYOMING – Wyoming boys basketball coach Thom Vander Klay isn’t as worried as most coaches when his team is involved in a tightly-contested game late in the fourth quarter.
The senior-dominated and seasoned Wolves typically find a way to come out on top.
“We’re just kind of gritty, and we don’t get rattled,” the longtime coach said of his 15-1 squad. “We keep plugging away and taking our swings. It’s one of those teams where they are not afraid to lose and so I don’t think you will find moments that are too big, because that’s not really on the agenda. They are fearless in that regard.”
Wyoming is arguably the best team in the Grand Rapids area and proved it during the last week with a pair of key wins over ranked opponents.
The Wolves rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat previously unbeaten Grand Rapids Christian 62-61 last week and then topped Ottawa-Kent Conference Red champion Hudsonville 57-50 on Tuesday.
Senior Monte Parks drained a pair of free throws with six seconds remaining to help avenge Wyoming’s only loss of the season against the Eagles.
“That was really big, of course, and it was just a tough game,” Vander Klay said. “We shot 26 percent from the floor, and we struggled offensively but found a way to pull it out at the end there.
“We stuck to our motto of not giving up, not quitting and keep playing hard.”
The Wolves’ suffocating defense forced 25 Grand Rapids Christian turnovers, and they took care of the basketball with only five turnovers.
“Those were big wins for us, and we needed those,” Wyoming’s 5-foot-10 senior guard Menalito McGee said. “It just boosted our confidence a lot, too, knowing we can play with anybody in the area.”
Wyoming’s success this season can be attributed to a senior class that played extensive minutes last season.
Eight seniors returned, and their entire starting five (McGee, Parks, Diego Ledesma, Demarion Parks, and Quincy Williams) is made up of seniors.
“They are very experienced, and they have a ton of practice in close games,” Vander Klay said. “And practice-wise it’s so easy because we can draw things up in a timeout and mention something on the fly, and they can pick it up. We have great senior leadership.”
McGee said the seniors learned valuable lessons last year.
“Last year we would lose the close games, so this year we’re more prepared and we know how to close out a game, whether by hitting free throws or making plays,” he said. “We just do whatever it takes to win, and as seniors we have to lead the team as a unit and lead by example on and off the court.”
The Wolves went 10-12 last season, but elevated their play during the second half of the season before bowing out to East Kentwood in the District Final.
“Basically it’s the same team as last year, and the last month of the season we were as good as anybody,” Vander Klay said. “January wasn’t very good, but the kids persevered through that, and once we got to February we started to play well.”
The late-season push, coupled with the bevy of returnees, raised the bar for this season.
“We definitely had high expectations coming into the season, and we knew what we could do,” McGee said. “We started climbing in February last year, and just building and winning more games. We knew we could hang with anybody this year.”
Wyoming plays an up-tempo brand of basketball and is averaging more than 70 points per game.
The Wolves possess an array of capable scorers with McGee as the catalyst.
He’s averaging nearly 25 points per game and recently etched his name in the MHSAA record book with a pair of stellar shooting performances.
On Jan. 28, McGee scored 45 points and made 12 3-pointers in a win over Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg. His were the most 3-pointers made in a single game in O-K Conference history.
Less than two weeks later, he connected on 14 3-pointers against Wayland and finished with 48 points.
McGee’s 14 3-pointers placed him second on the MHSAA all-time list. He trails only Matt Kitchen of Mayville, who made 15 against Bay City All Saints in 2001.
“Against T-K I hit my first one early in the game and came right back with a heat check and made another, so I knew from there that it was going to be a good night,” McGee said. “The Wayland game was the same thing. I think I had seven 3-pointers at halftime, and the bucket just got bigger.”
Vander Klay has had several elite 3-point shooters pass through the Wyoming/Wyoming Park program, including his son, Chase, and former Michigan State standout Drew Neitzel.
“He’s a competitor, and obviously, a very good shooter,” Vander Klay said of McGee. “Chase was one of our better shooters, but he didn’t have all the skills that Menalito has. He’s not very tall, but he’s slippery and can go by you. He sees the floor and gets it to the open man.
“He’s more like Drew in that regard. You have to step up and guard him, and when you do, he can make you pay that way. His decision-making is quite good, and he knows he can score from anywhere. His leadership is similar to Drew as well. He’s very vocal and knows how to talk to his teammates to motivate them.”
McGee credits his improved all-around game to time spent in the gym during the offseason.
“This year I got faster and stronger and added a pull-up jumper in the offseason,” McGee said. “I like to score the ball more, but also look for the open teammate and make the extra pass.”
A three-year varsity player, McGee also recently surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career.
“That was very special, and it was a good moment that I will remember for the rest of my life,” McGee said. “It’s an honor, and it was a lot of hard work. It isn’t easy to do, and you have to earn that. I put the work in.”
The Wolves have four regular-season games remaining and then will turn their attention to making a deep run in the MHSAA Tournament.
“The first goal is to finish conference and win the O-K Gold,” McGee said. “And then after that, focus on Districts and try to win that. The primary goal is to win a state championship. We want a ring.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four 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@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Wyoming’s Diego Ledesma (1) is introduced before a Feb. 4 win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. (Middle) Menalito McGee (10) gets to the basket. (Below) The Wolves talk things over with coach Thom Vander Klay. (Photos courtesy of the Wyoming boys basketball program.)