GRAND RAPIDS – It may be a familiar destination for Wyoming Tri-unity Christian's boys basketball team. But there's no arguing the path to get there has been strewn with potholes this season.
The Defenders will play in their ninth MHSAA Finals championship game since 1996 after racing past Rudyard 61-43 in Thursday's first Division 4 Semifinal at Van Andel Arena.
While playing in a Final is nothing new for Tri-unity, the win overcame another obstacle in what has been a challenging season for the Defenders (14-2), who move along to Saturday's 10 a.m. championship game at Breslin Center. Among the issues Tri-unity has overcome include playing only 10 regular-season games, axing the last two weeks of the schedule due to a COVID shutdown, playing only once in an abbreviated Regional and losing 12 seniors – plus coach Mark Keeler – to quarantine protocol early in the year.
Despite the reduced schedule and missing out on the chance to build early momentum, the Defenders have more than prevailed. The program has won four Finals titles and will make its ninth trip under Keeler, who this winter passed Paul Cook for sixth place on the state's all-time win list (627).
"It's been a very trying year," Keeler said. "I knew we had good potential, and guys have responded so well. We played a tough schedule, the kind of competition you want. We were able to stay humble, which is always something I have believed in. It's been a tough year, but it's been really exciting for the school.
"The guys have played awesome all the way through. We were confident we could make it to the Breslin, and we peaked at the right time. We've got a great senior group, and we really want to finish it out."
The Defenders never trailed Rudyard (18-3) after a 16-2 run snapped a 4-4 tie late in the first quarter. The Bulldogs did cut the lead to 20-16 with 7:13 left in the first half, but Tri-unity scored 16 of the next 19 points for a 36-19 halftime lead. The lead reached 54-34 with four minutes to go in the game.
While Keeler said he believed all along the team was a Finals contender, co-captain Austin Treece, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, said there was pressure to meet lofty goals.
"For sure," he said. "There is always pressure, but we just play bigger. We do a great job because I think we're a hungry team."
Co-captain Jaden Ophoff, who had six rebounds, two assists, two steals and four points, said the team has never felt distracted from its goal of playing in East Lansing. Beating Rudyard was just another step, he said.
"We didn't know what to expect from them, coming from the Upper Peninsula," he said. "We were able to adjust to them."
Tri-unity junior guard Brad Titus was virtually unstoppable. He scored 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting while adding four rebounds, six assists and six steals. Titus, who started as a freshman two years ago on a Division 4 semifinalist, said he's heard about playing in a championship game for years.
"This is really big, a blessing. I love it," he said. "We went two years ago, but we were cut short two years ago. It's great to be going."
Rudyard coach Jim Suggitt said Titus, who averages 22 points and four assists per game, was the difference.
"We tried to trade for their point guard, but Mark wouldn't buy it. I told him we'd even throw in the team bus, but he wouldn't go for it," Suggitt said. "He was the best ballplayer on the floor. He could take over whenever he wanted to."
Rudyard's E.J. Suggitt, who finished with 19 points, said the game plan was to keep Titus in check.
"We wanted to stop (him)," Suggitt said. "But even if you stop him, their role players will step up. They are a very tough team; they just played better basketball."
Keeler thinks Titus has played well enough in his career to be at least a two-time all-stater. He's thrilled Titus will have the chance to join his teammates in a championship game.
"The numbers (of past championship game trips) don't matter because this is a whole new group," Keeler said. "It's exciting for them, and it's something they will always remember. They've heard from other players we've had what it's like. It's a thrill."
PHOTOS: (Top) Tri-unity Christian's Aidan DeKlyen pulls up for a shot in front of the Rudyard bench Thursday at Van Andel Arena. (Middle) The Defenders' Brady Titus was the game's high scorer with 28 points. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.
No 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.
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.
“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 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.)