By Nate Thompson
NORTON SHORES – Western Michigan Christian seniors Jake Betten and Brandon Fles and sophomore Owen Varnado know what it feels like when a championship season starts coming together.
They were members of the Warriors’ Division 4 state championship soccer squad during the fall. Betten and Varnado said they’ve noticed similarities between that team and their current squad, the WMC boys basketball team.
“I believe the key thing is having fun,” Varnado said. “When we’re having fun and playing together, that’s when we’re playing our best, and that was when we were playing our best soccer. You could see that during our first few games (during basketball) when we were scoring in the 70s.”
Like the soccer team, which finished with a 20-2-3 record, the rising boys basketball team has ignited some excitement at the school.
With the emergence of two super sophomores – Varnado and Kellen Mitchell, a pair of athletic, high-flying 6-5 forwards – the Warriors have surged to a 7-4 record. They should contend for the Lakes 8 Conference championship, and have the potential to end their team’s district title drought, which stretches back to 2011.
“This team really likes to get out in transition and outlet it to Kellen and Owen, so they can throw down some dunks,” Betten said.
There have been plenty of those moments so far this winter. Mitchell estimates that he and Varnado have combined for 10-12 dunks so far, a pretty high number for a Class C program.
Mitchell said it’s a little bit of fate that he ended up at WMC. He was born in California, but when his father, Keith, accepted a job in Holland, the family moved to Grand Haven.
“We looked around the area at schools and found WMC,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell comes from pretty athletic blood lines. His dad was a tight end and linebacker for the University of Michigan football team from 1985-89.
When he came to WMC, Mitchell not only found a school he liked, but also Varnado, a player his own age and size, with the same type of elite skills.
“I’ve known Owen since about fifth grade when we were on the same AAU team,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been on and off the same team throughout the years, but we’ve been good friends.”
Mitchell joked that there’s been “some bleeding” in his competitive one-on-one battles with Varnado over the years, but when they’re on the same side they play off each other’s talent extremely well.
“We mesh pretty well together,” Mitchell said. “I consider myself more of a guard, so I can go inside and out, while Owen plays more on the blocks and inside the paint.”
Opposing teams have tried to combat WMC’s height by sagging defenders into the paint, forcing the Warriors to beat them by hitting perimeter shots.
The Warriors have been inconsistent in that area, but they were definitely hot against North Muskegon on Jan. 15, when Mitchell exploded for 36 points in a big non-conference victory.
“It was just one of those games where I felt in the zone,” said Mitchell, who is averaging around 20 points and four rebounds per game this season. “I think I made like 14 of 17 shots. It felt like I was going to make every shot.”
Varnado’s ties to WMC run deep. His grandmother and parents all graduated from the school, as did his older sister Olivia and brother Jared. Both older siblings played basketball for the Warriors, and passed on their passion for the game to the baby of the family.
Varnado’s athleticism stands out. He said he could dunk as early as the eighth grade, but these days does so with much more consistency and power.
“I’d say a part of it (is God-given), but I’ve spent a lot of time in the weight room trying to get stronger, and it’s paid off,” said Varnado, who averages close to 14 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.
While the Warriors’ outstanding sophomores get a lot of hype, Varnado said the glue-guy on the team is senior Brandon Fles, who was also arguably the top player on the soccer squad.
“He’s just a dog out there,” Varnado said about Fles. “He just goes out there and works. Defense, rebounding, all of that. With his work ethic and the passion he had for soccer, I’ve tried to copy that for basketball.”
That’s music to the ears of fourth-year head coach Kurt Gruppen, who said he enjoys the pressure of trying to rekindle the rich history of basketball at the school. Under legendary coach Jim Goorman, the Warriors won five state championships.
“We’re still a work in progress, but we’ve had some good flashes,” Gruppen said. “We’ve had a lack of focus here and there, and there have been key moments where we’ve struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
“But we’ve got some big athletes on the wing, and all three (Varnado, Mitchell and Fles) can play above the rim. That brings some excitement. They’re good kids off the court, too, so other students like them and respect what they’re able to do.”