Story provided to FOX 17 by Lenny Padilla
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Luke Maranka blocks shots with ease. The 6-foot-10 forward swatted two shots on the same possession during a recent scrimmage by a player who forgot he was trying to score against the high school version of a giant.
Maranka is one of the best big men in West Michigan - and perhaps the state - and he’s committed to go to the University of Toledo.
So why haven’t you heard of him?
Because plays for a homeschool team.
Yes, a homeschool team has a Division I kid. And a lot of other talent, too.
The Grand Rapids Angels are a second-year program that is so talented that they hold their own against Class A and B public schools around West Michigan.
“All of the (starters) on this team could be a leading scorer on another team,” Maranka said. “Spreading the ball around through five talented players is a little difficult sometimes, but when we get it going, there aren’t many teams who can beat us.”
On a recent Saturday morning, the Angels scrimmaged Grand Rapids Union, one of the more talented teams in Grand Rapids, and it ended up being a one-point win for the Angels. Granted, Union was missing two starters.
“I’ve seen them several times in scrimmages and team camps,” Union coach Brandeon Guyton said. “I was telling Coach (Greg) Endsley that they have made tremendous strides. They are competitive. If they were in an OK Conference, they’d be able to compete.”
In scrimmages since summer, the Angels have played schools such as East Kentwood, Union, Mattawan, Forest Hills Northern, South Christian, Unity Christian and NorthPointe Christian.
“Playing a public school team, the intensity is a lot higher,” said junior Shawn Coad. “You can feel it. When you play other homeschool teams, it’s not as intense. The pace is slower.”
WHERE IT STARTED
The Angels are new in homeschool circles. They are two years old, coached by Endsley and have a three-person board that runs the organization.
“This is our second year,” Endsley said. “It’s made up of two other programs that were too small to continue. Some of the boys wanted a higher level of competition and some want to play in college.”
The Angels are 8-2 this season during their homeschool schedule that takes them to Indiana and Ohio to play regular-season games.
“We have a regional tournament in Indianapolis and a national tournament in Springfield, Missouri, that we can be apart of,” Endsley said. “It basically resembles what the state of Michigan has (in the postseason), where they have everything inside the state but we have to travel.”
They Angels have a 10-man varsity roster and have put together a JV and freshman team, too. It’s made up of kids who have been home schooled their whole lives and a few that have left traditional schools.
Nathan Lauer, a starting point guard, was at Caledonia High School last year.
“I left Caledonia to better my future in school,” Lauer said. “My dad met with Coach Ensley and we liked the team and the whole aspect of homeschool and the religious part, too. For me, it’s been a really good decision and I’m part of a really good basketball team.”
HOME SCHOOL STIGMA
So what kind of reaction do the Angels get?
“It’s a wide spectrum,” Endsley said. “I get ‘I don’t want to play this team because they are terrible’ and ‘They’re just a prep team that practices year round and they’re amazing and that’s not fair.’ I get guys that just say ‘I have no clue what they are.’ So it’s a challenge.”
Endsley said building relationships with area coaches helps.
“It’s important to make connections and relationships with other teams and coaches,” he said. “So with Union, Brandeon and I have a good connection. We played Union up at the Ferris State camp. He was looking for more teams to play in their scrimmage. We played them real well. He puts together a scrimmage and he wants teams to not play the same teams they always play. So they are looking for teams from out of the area.”
Endsley said he knows the Angels aren’t a traditional homeschool basketball team.
“This is a better-than-normal team,” he said. “Normally, we (homeschool teams) should be playing Class D and Class C schools teams. This team can compete with Class A teams.”
THE BIG FELLA
Guyton wanted a challenge for his Union RedHawks. Of course it helps when they have to go up against Maranka.
“With Luke, he’s one of the best players in the state,” Guyton said. “It’s good for us to get a scrimmage in against them because we won’t see too many kids that are 6-10 with that size.”
Maranka is solid around the basket, has a nice-looking shot from 3-point range, can run the floor and is a great defender.
That combination wasn’t lost on some big schools.
“Last year, we had Princeton, Western Michigan and schools coming from Tennessee here to our practice. That’s not normal,” Endsley said. “Six-10 kids don’t grow on trees. It’s brought a lot of attention.”
But it’s Toledo - a Division I school in the Midwest Athletic Conference - that Maranka was most comfortable with.
“I feel like Toledo is the best fit for me,” Maranka said. “I can play where I want to play (on the court). I can play outside or inside.”
So when did the Hudsonville native start to draw attention?
“I ended up playing with the Mustangs at the end of my 16U AAU season - the Michigan Mustangs - and it kind of escalated from there so I was playing in a lot of big tournaments,” he said. “I think it really started when I went to Vegas in my 16U year. I picked up some offers after that in 17U (season).”
The Angels scrimmaged NorthPointe Christian twice and Maranka impressed coach Jared Redell.
“He’s one of the best big guys in West Michigan in awhile,” Redell said. “He’s not the college player that (Xavier) Tillman and (Marcus) Bingham are, but as a high school player, he’s good. He can shoot and finish with both hands and has good footwork.”
Prep Hoops Michigan, a high school basketball website, put out its rankings for the best juniors in the state. Lauer is ranked No. 25 and Coad is No. 53. Both are getting looks from MIAA and NAIA colleges.
“Nathan’s a great kid,” Endsley said. “He plays very smooth. I’m trying to get him to be more explosive. He’s been a scorer all his life. He’s got a good jump shot and can dunk the ball with two hands pretty easily. He doesn’t do it a lot. I’m trying to get himself to come out of his shell.”
Coad, of Hopkins, is a leaper with a solid jump shot and loves to take it to the rim.
“When he’s in the gym, he gets attention,” Endsley said. “He’s usually the most athletic kid on the court. He can run and jump with anybody. Grand Valley had him in for a workout, he’s been to Indiana Wesleyan, Spring Arbor, Cornerstone … I see him going to a small Christian school.”
Jared Ensley, the son of the coach, is a starting sophomore guard who is good a passing and can dunk but he’s still working on his offense.
“Usually when a coach asks about him, I let my assistant handle it because of the dad thing,” Greg Endsley said. “He’s athletic. He’s grown a lot. He’s been playing varsity since he was in 8th grade. So he’s had to grow up quick. He’s a pass-first point guard. The kids on the team say he needs to shoot more. He can dunk with two hands. I couldn’t do that as a sophomore. He’s gotta put on some muscle.”
Luke Sallee, of Caledonia, rounds out the starting five for the Angels. During the scrimmage against Union, he drained several 3-pointers from beyond NBA range.
“He’s a great shooter and a physical guy and you don’t see that in home school very often,” Maranka said of his teammate.
Endsley said he’s still a work-in-progress.
“Luke came late,” he said. “He’s never played AAU so no one has heard of him. My advice to him is to play JV at a Cornerstone, Hope etc. Don’t take it as a slap in the face. Improve yourself and things will happen for you.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
The Angels have gotten attention from other players who want to join the program, but don’t realize it’s a Christian organization and they actually have to be home schooled to play.
“We’ve fielded about 10 calls already this season from public-school kids and homeschool kids that want to play for us next year,” Endsley said. “Not only are we a homeschool team, we are a Christian team. I hold my kids accountable. I have the freedom that a public school coach doesn’t, where I can speak about my faith and we pray after practice and before games.”
The future is players like 8th grader Kaden Brown, who played with the varsity team against Union.
“It’s fun. I like to see how the varsity plays so that I’m ready when I get to high school,” The Grand Rapids native said. “It helps me get ready for next year because I’ll be playing against a lot of big people.”
But, for now, the Grand Rapids Angels will battle the ‘Who are these guys?’ stigma and continue to play all comers.