By: Mike DeWitt
Ten minutes before practice starts and not a voice is heard. The only sounds coming from the Wyoming High School gym are the hard dribbles of basketballs and the sweet sound of the ball touching nylon. Eventually, a word is spoken to put an end to the verbal silence, “Ball!”
It’s all about efficiency. Not a second is wasted.
When you close your eyes and focus solely on the sounds coming from a team’s practice, an accurate picture on the team’s identity begins to take form. After 31 years, Wyoming Head Coach Thom Vander Klay has a keen sense on how his team operates.
“This team is quiet and constantly thinking,” described Vander Klay. “While they may be quiet, they’re extremely aggressive and confident. It’s a quiet confidence, but it’s definitely there. It’s a healthy confidence that doesn’t spill over into being cocky.”
That quiet confidence is taken directly from their head coach. Throughout practice, Vander Klay takes a backseat as players organize themselves into drills for the day. He trusts his system and his players to waste no time getting as many reps in as possible. When a teaching moment is available, the coach steps in with the knowledge and passion that easily commands a room.
“He instilled a very good work ethic, not only in basketball, but in life,” said former player Bob Henning, who played JV ball for Vander Klay at Wyoming Park in 1992. “He never took it easy, not even during the off-season. He taught you that you have to work to get the things you want in life.”
There’s a reason Vander Klay was voted the best basketball coach in Grand Rapids.
Coach Vander Klay has pretty much seen it all in his time roaming the sidelines. He remembers a time when the three-point shot was considered a wasted possession. He coached the JV basketball team at Wyoming Park for 10 years before taking over as the Varsity coach. When Wyoming Park and Rogers merged into what is now Wyoming High School, Vander Klay took the reins of the basketball program and the new challenge of merging red and blue.
“When we merged, we had to rid of everything red and blue. It had to be purple everything,” remembered Vander Klay. The merge has been successful and the student section even hosts “throwback” games where students wear the old uniforms from Park and Rogers. “There’s no more animosity. We’re all wolves.”
For the seniors, the first four-year class to go through Wyoming High School, being a “wolf” is all they know and it’s not something they take lightly.
“It has been pretty special to see how the sports evolved from when everyone was a rival,” explained senior Edwin Martinez looking back on his four years. “It feels great to be a part of the history of the school.”
“We became more of a family,” added senior Brendan Berg.
While the class of 2016 has a lot of history to their name just for entering Wyoming High School at the right time, they have also earned some special history on the court as well. Wyoming has had some extremely talented teams in the past – twice finishing second in the conference – but this season the Wolves were finally able to bring home the O-K Bronze Conference crown.
“Winning that first conference championship for Wyoming [boys basketball] is something we’ve talked about,” Coach Vander Klay said. “It was unfinished business after taking home two second-place finishes [2015 and 2014] and one third-place finish .”
The importance of adding a historical first to a coach with such a prestigious record isn’t lost on the players either. After winning seven conference championships at Wyoming Park, Coach Vander Klay has kept the winning tradition alive at Wyoming.
“It’s very cool to be the first team at Wyoming to win a championship under Coach Vander Klay,” exclaimed senior Zach Mann.
While some coaches may experience burnout after 31 years, Vander Klay, a graduate and former player at Wyoming Park, continues to live his dream, “I just love it. It’s my hobby and something that I personally like to do. I enjoy the kids.”
Update – In the District Semi-Final on Wednesday night, Wyoming fell to Hudsonville 55-52 in overtime. The Wolves came back from down 15-points in the final quarter to force OT.