By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Dating back more than 90 years, the MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament allows us to conjure up “first time since” statements that truly speak to the event’s lengthy and rich history.
Three of eight Class A and B semifinalists this weekend are playing for first championships – including Clarkston, often one of the best in Michigan but frequently just a few wins short of that first title. But also in this weekend’s field are Grand Rapids Christian, playing for its first title since 1938, and Benton Harbor playing for its first since 1965. Ludington last played in an MHSAA Final in 1953. River Rouge won more recently, in 1999, but is best known for its 12 championships over 19 seasons from 1954-72.
Semifinals for Class A and B are Friday at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, with all four championship games Saturday.
Semifinals – Friday
West Bloomfield (17-8) vs. Clarkston (25-1), 1 p.m.
Grand Rapids Christian (26-0) vs. Romulus (21-4), 2:50 p.m.
New Haven (25-1) vs. Benton Harbor (22-3), 6 p.m.
River Rouge (24-1) vs. Ludington (24-2), 7:50 p.m.
Finals - Saturday
Class A - Noon
Class B - 6:30 p.m.
Class C - 4:30 p.m.
Class D - 10 a.m.
Tickets cost $8 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session. All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.
And now, a look at the semifinalists in Class A and B. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.) The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
Record/rank: 25-1, Tied for No. 3
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red
Coach: Dan Fife, 35th season (675-169)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 68-48 over No. 5 Macomb Dakota in the Regional Semifinal, 60-47 over No. 7 Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 57-51 over honorable mention Romulus, 59-48 and 68-61 over West Bloomfield.
Players to watch: Foster Loyer, 6-0 jr. G (25.1 ppg, 6.4 apg); Dylan Alderson, 6-5 sr. F (23.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
Outlook: Clarkston is in the Semifinals for the first time since 2009 seeking the first championship game berth of its storied history. Fife entered this season ranked fourth in MHSAA history for coaching wins, and the Wolves have totaled more than 20 in four straight seasons while winning District titles in 23 of the last 24. His leader on the court, Loyer, already has committed to play at Michigan State after high school, and Alderson has signed with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The lone loss was by four to Southfield Arts & Technology on Feb. 17, and Clarkston has won all but one game since by at least 20 points.
GRAND RAPIDS CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 26-0, No. 1
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold
Coach: Mark Warners, seventh season (116-45)
Championship history: Class B (Lower Peninsula) champion 1938, Class B (Lower Peninsula) runner-up 1939.
Best wins: 66-46 (Quarterfinal) and 53-51 (OT) over No. 8 Kalamazoo Central, 59-56 (Regional Final) and 57-49 over No. 9 Holland West Ottawa, 64-26 over No. 3 Muskegon in the Regional Semifinal, 71-49 over Class B No. 9 Wayland, 72-58 over Class B No. 1 Wyoming Godwin Heights.
Players to watch: Xavier Tillman, 6-8 sr. F (13.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 4.1 bpg); Duane Washington, Jr., 6-3 jr. G (11.9 ppg, 4,4 apg, 49 3-pointers).
Outlook: The Eagles have played through one of the toughest paths to get to Breslin, against top-10 teams their last three games, to make their first Semifinal since 2013. As a team, Grand Rapids Christian has outrebounded opponents 37-28 on average and held them to only 42 points per game. Tillman was a Mr. Basketball Award finalist and teams with 6-7 senior James Beck II (12.9 ppg 7.0 rpg); they’re signed to play next at MSU and Oakland, respectively, while Washington is considered one of the state’s top juniors.
Record/rank: 21-4, honorable mention
League finish: Tied for first in Western Wayne Athletic Conference Blue
Coach: Jerret Smith, fourth season (78-23)
Championship history: Class A champions 2013 and 1986, runner-up 2005.
Best wins: 66-63 over No. 6 Detroit U-D Jesuit in the Quarterfinal, 71-58 (Regional Semifinal) and 57-56 over Belleville, 73-63 over No. 9 Kalamazoo Central.
Players to watch: Kaevon Merriweather, 6-2 jr. G (19 ppg), Jaren English, 6-4 sr. F (17 ppg).
Outlook: The Eagles have tested themselves against the best this season, avenging earlier defeats against league rival Belleville and reigning Class A champion U-D Jesuit and falling also to Clarkston and River Rouge – both also semifinalists this weekend. Romulus has been a regular during the final week with eight Quarterfinal appearances over the last 13 seasons and Semifinals this decade in 2013 and 2012 as well. Six players average at least eight points a game; senior forward Dylan Price adds 16 and junior center Darius Lundy 10.
Record/rank: 17-8, unranked
League finish: Tied for third in the OAA Red
Coach: Jeremy Denha, seventh season (84-66)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 80-43 (Quarterfinal) and 64-61 over Troy, 63-58 (OT) over North Farmington, 57-55 over Southfield Arts & Technology.
Players to watch: Kevin McAdoo, 6-2 sr. G (24.1 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.0 spg, 53 3-pointers); Tre Harvey, 6-2 jr. G (15.4 ppg, 56 3-pointers).
Outlook: West Bloomfield has gotten hot at the best time to make its first Semifinal since 2003 after losing three of its final four games during the regular season. The Lakers’ league does include Clarkston (above) and reigning Class A runner-up North Farmington, which no doubt helped prepare West Bloomfield to make a run. McAdoo and Harvey can put points on the board – McAdoo has a high game of 40 – and sophomore Tre Mosley also finds the basket from long range with 44 3-pointers entering the week.
Record/rank: 22-3, No. 5
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Coach: Corey Sterling, fifth season (86-35)
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 1965), seven runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 46-44 over Spring Lake in the Quarterfinal, 60-57 over No. 9 Wayland in the Regional Final, 49-44 (OT) over Stevensville Lakeshore, 55-45 over Battle Creek Central.
Players to watch: Carlos Johnson, 6-6 fr. C (14.2 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 3.3 bpg); Roy Anderson, 6-2 sr. G (13.5 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3.6 spg).
Outlook: Benton Harbor was Class B runner-up in 2014 and is back at the Breslin for the second time in four seasons after bouncing back from two losses over its final three games. All three defeats this winter were to Class A teams, and by a combined nine points. Johnson and Anderson are just two of the standouts; junior forward Shawn Hopkins adds another 13.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, and junior guard Elijah Baxter averages 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 steals.
Record/rank: 24-2, No. 8
League finish: Tied for first in Lakes 8 Activities Conference
Coach: Thad Shank, 15th season (235-115)
Championship history: Class B runner-up 1953.
Best wins: 63-49 (District Quarterfinal) and 70-38 over honorable mention Big Rapids, 59-56 over Traverse City West, 60-44 over Muskegon Heights Academy.
Players to watch: Calvin Hackert, 6-0 sr. G (13.3 ppg, 3.1 apg, 45 3-pointers); Sam LaDuke, 6-3 sr. G (10.5 ppg, 30 3-pointers).
Outlook: Ludington is making the trip for its first Semifinal since 1971. The Orioles were 9-13 only two seasons ago before Shank returned after three years away from the program – he coached the girls team during that time, and both teams last winter before coaching just the boys this season. All five of his starters plus two subs average at least five points per game, and five of those seven are seniors looking to continue this finish on a high note.
Record/rank: 25-1, No. 3
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Blue
Coach: Tedaro France II, ninth season (157-57)
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 73-66 over Detroit Osborn in the Quarterfinal, 108-104 (3OT) over Class C No. 4 Flint Beecher, 84-56 over St. Clair Shores Lake Shore, 79-50 over Warren Michigan Collegiate.
Players to watch: Eric Williams, Jr., 6-5 sr. G (20.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.8 spg); Romeo Weems, 6-6 soph. F (18.1 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 3.9 spg, 3.2 bpg).
Outlook: New Haven played in its third straight Quarterfinal on Tuesday and broke through to make the Semifinals for the first time. And the time couldn’t be more right for the Rockets; Williams is a star finishing off his career alongside Weems, arguably the top sophomore in the state. Junior 6-7 forward Ashton Sherrell adds another 11.7 points and seven rebounds per game, and total six players average at least 6.4 ppg. And of those six, four should be back next season as well.
Record/rank: 24-1, No. 2
League finish: First in Michigan Metro Athletic Conference
Coach: Mark White, first season (24-1)
Championship history: 14 MHSAA titles (most recent 1999), five runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 54-51 over Williamston in the Quarterfinal, 78-72 over Class A honorable mention Romulus, 57-52 over West Bloomfield, 71-47 over Warren Michigan Collegiate, 62-47 over Class D No. 2 Southfield Christian.
Players to watch: Darian Owens-White, 6-1 soph. G; DreQuan Bell, 6-3 sr. G (Statistics not submitted.).
Outlook: River Rouge is one of the most storied programs in MHSAA history, and has arguably its best shot at a championship since last winning in 1999. White took over the program after formerly coaching Detroit Renaissance and Southeastern and the last eight seasons as head coach at Adrian College. This will be the program’s first Semifinal since 1999; it advanced by avenging last season’s Quarterfinal loss to Williamston.
PHOTO: River Rouge's Darian Owens-White works to get up a shot during Tuesday's Quarterfinal win over Williamston. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)