Oilers Add to Decade of Dominance

June 14, 2014

By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Aaron Leasher didn’t need a whole lot of run support.

Still, it was a nice luxury to have as the senior left-hander tossed a four-hitter Saturday in leading Mount Pleasant to a 7-2 win over Richmond in the MHSAA Division 2 Final at McLane Baseball Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.

It was the Oilers’ third MHSAA championship and first since 2007, and it goes in the books as another highlight in an outstanding run that includes eight District championships and Seven regional titles over the past decade.

“We came in pretty focused, and we pretty much peaked in the tournament here,” said Luke Epple, who completed his 21st year as the Oilers’ coach and has led the program to a 615-166 record and all three of its championships. “I knew we were better than what a lot of people thought we were. We’re young, and just had to keep working at things and make the plays you can make and throw strikes, put the ball in play and keep pressure on them.

“We expect to do well in this tournament, but you’ve still got to execute. Some years past we’ve matched up very good, and we didn’t execute. This team, we really stressed that execution with everything – small ball, driving runs in with two outs, making the plays you should make. We came in focused, and that was what I was most proud of. They didn’t let the other things around them bother them. They wanted to win, and they played to win today.”

And there’s good reason to believe that Mount Pleasant could contend next year and beyond. Five underclassmen were in the Oilers’ starting lineup Saturday. One, sophomore Zach Heeke, gave his team a 1-0 lead with a first-inning sacrifice fly.

Mount Pleasant (32-8-1) tacked on three runs in the third, getting an RBI single from Hunter Buczkowski, a sacrifice fly from Joe Genia, and getting another run on a balk by Richmond starter Dillon McInerney.

Leasher went the distance, striking out seven (four on called third strikes) and walking three.

“I was struggling a little bit early on with trying to get the first pitch across, but in the later innings I started to get my first pitch (for a strike), and that’s where it went from there,” said Leasher, who got outstanding support from a defense that turned two inning-ending double plays behind him. “My defense stayed strong, and we got early run support, so that was great. It calms your nerves down and you just get settled in on the mound, and you can work on trying to throw to contact instead of trying to strike guys out.”

Robert Backus had two hits and two RBI to lead the Oilers as the plate, while Dean Marais also had two hits.

Zach Leach and McInerney had two hits apiece for Richmond, but the Blue Devils never put more than one runner on base in any inning until the sixth. And by then, they trailed 5-0 and Leasher was clearly in a groove. 

Richmond (35-3) lost in the MHSAA Final for the second straight year, and saw its winning streak end at 33 games.

“Every run they tack on, it takes away our small ball; (then) we have to play for a bigger inning,” said Scott Evans, who is 92-20 in three years as Richmond’s coach. “We just hit balls at people.”

Evans returned six starters from a team that fell, 3-0, to Grand Rapids Christian in last year’s Division 2 Final.

“I think we were 100 percent overwhelmed last year,” he said. “(This year) we went deep in all of our at-bats. We only had one strikeout on a ball that was out of the zone. I’m not disappointed in our effort at the plate.

“It’s a great group of kids. I’ll never forget them. They’re like my sons. It’s never been about me; it’s about those boys.”

And for the Oilers, it was all about pitching throughout the tournament as Leasher and Buczkowski, a sophomore right-hander, dominated. In Mount Pleasant’s seven tournament games, they combined to surrender six runs and post two shutouts.

The two runs scored by Richmond – both came in the seventh inning – were the most the Oilers had allowed in any of their tournament games.

“We have some other good pitchers, but these two, we had to go with them,” Epple said. “They were dominating all the way through. They dominated through the regular season. They’ve got a couple losses, but they were like 1-0 (scores) in eight innings.

“We knew if we could pick the ball up, move the runners, score some runs and make the play that you should make (that) we had a good chance to win. And they believed that.”

McInerney took the loss, his first of the season against 12 victories. He allowed four runs on seven hits, while walking one and striking out two over three innings. Jake Schmidt went the final three frames for Richmond, surrendering three runs on three hits, while walking one and striking out three.” 

Click for the full box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Mount Pleasant players rush the field to celebrate their third MHSAA baseball championship. (Middle) Oilers pitcher Aaron Leasher struck out seven batters in throwing the shutout.

Hart Teammates Reunite After 80 Years as WWII Vets, Great-Grandfathers

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

June 7, 2023

Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.

West MichiganNo one could have guessed that less than two months after graduation (on July 2, 1943), the two friends would head to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, the first stop on their way overseas to fight for their country in World War II.

No one could have imagined how many twists and turns their lives would take over the next 80 years – from the battlefields in the South Pacific, then back to West Michigan where they both were married with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now Harold even has a great-great-grandchild.

And, certainly, no one would have believed that the two young boys from Hart – who forged a friendship through high school sports long before the days of computers, microwave ovens and cell phones – would still be alive at the age of 98 for an emotional reunion last month, on May 22, seeing each other for the first time in 80 years and, to cap it off, the reunion took place in their hometown of Hart.

“It was such a great day,” Hansen said about the meeting, which was set up by Muskegon-area World War II historian Richard Mullally.

“We picked right up, talking about sports and the service and everything else.”

The conversation came easy for the two old friends, who played for Hart during a “golden era” at the school – particularly in basketball, as the Pirates won 11 West Michigan Conference basketball titles between 1940 and 1954.

Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. Perhaps the best team during that time period was Hansen and Tate’s as seniors in 1943. That team lost only once, to rival Scottville (31-25), but more than made up for it with an 80-10 trouncing of the Spartans in the final regular-season game.

Hart then crushed Scottville and Newaygo to win the District championship, only to have Michigan’s prep basketball season stopped abruptly at that point because of World War II.

That 1943 team featured four starters over 6-0, led by the duo of Hansen and Stan Kapulak (both 6-6), Joe Mack (6-2), Lyle Burmeister (6-1) and Stanley Riley (the lone starter under 6-foot at 5-11).

“The newspapers called us ‘The Hart Skyscrapers,’” said Hansen, who will be 99 on Nov. 6. “We were taller than most college teams at that time.”

Hansen and Tate’s friendship continued to blossom on the baseball field, only to have their lives turned upside down shortly after graduation 80 years ago, when all Hart senior boys who had been drafted headed to Battle Creek as a brief staging area on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific.

Hansen served in the Army Specialized Training Program and was part of the 52nd Signal Battalion and the 4025th Signal Battalion in the Pacific Theater.

“I had an all-expense paid tour of the South Pacific,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “The Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Hawaii, all over the place.”

Tate did his service in the 24th Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Japan.

During their visit last month, Harold showed off the Japanese Samurai sword and Arisaka rifle which he had sent back from Japan to Hart. The week after their visit, both took part in Memorial Day parades – Hansen in the Lakeside parade in Muskegon and Tate in his 77th Memorial Day service in Hart.

Hansen, who still has a home on a small lake in Holton and lives at a senior care facility in Muskegon, played many years of semi-pro basketball and did some coaching. He worked at GTE and has five children and 10 grandchildren.

Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II.“I have been so blessed,” Hansen said, sorting through one of his many scrapbooks. “All five of my kids are great and I have grandkids that are just amazing, everything they are doing. I don’t even know all of their names, but it’s sure been fun watching them.”

Tate returned to Hart after his military service and has been there ever since, at first working as a carpenter with his father and then becoming a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring 26 years ago at the age of 72. He has lived in the same home for 75 years and has three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandkids and now one great-great-grandchild.

Tate laments the demise of his beloved American Legion post in Hart, a town with just over 2,000 residents, as the number of members has steadily declined.

One topic that brings a smile to both of their faces is the recent resurgence of the Hart High School athletic program, which drew media attention not too many years ago for all the wrong reasons – notably a football program which went 24 years without a winning record.

That string was snapped with a 6-3 mark and the school’s first earned playoff appearance last fall.

But that was just the start.

This winter, Hart’s boys basketball team finished the regular season 22-0, the girls basketball team made it to the Division 3 Semifinals at the Breslin Center, wrestling qualified for the Team Finals for the fourth-straight year and competitive cheer placed fourth in Division 4. This spring, the Hart girls track & field team won its second-straight Division 3 Finals team title, and the boys placed fourth.

“It’s a great place to call home, a great place to live, always has been,” said Hansen of his hometown, which got its name from its central position in the “heart” of Oceana County.

And who would have imagined that these two high school teammates could still come home again for a reunion at the age of 98?

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Members of the 1943 Hart High School varsity baseball team gather together, preparing for a team photo. Among those are Harold Gayle Tate (far left) and Walter "Stretch" Hansen, at 6-6 the tallest player in the back row. (Middle) Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. (Below) Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Top photo courtesy of Stretch Hansen. Middle and below photos courtesy of Richard Mullally.)