'Battle of Wills' Goes Williamston's Way in Title-Deciding OT Thriller

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

March 26, 2022

EAST LANSING – Before Saturday’s Division 2 Final, the Williamston boys basketball team hadn’t been challenged much during the MHSAA Tournament, winning every game by double digits.

But the unbeaten Hornets received all they could handle and more against reigning champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central.

Willamston withstood a furious rally by the Cougars and poor free throw shooting to pull out a dramatic 68-65 overtime win at Breslin Center.

It was the first Finals title for Williamston boys basketball since 1940, as the Hornets finished the season unbeaten at 27-0. 

“These guys did something that people will remember forever,” said Williamston coach Tom Lewis, who brought out an old team photo of the 1940 champions before the game.

GRCC/Williamston basketball“And they took some heavy punches and most teams would have a hard time pulling that game out, but my guys had just enough counterpunch to get that done. I really don’t have the words to say how proud I am of my entire team.”

Torrid shooting in the second quarter, including five 3-pointers, helped stake the Hornets to a 36-28 halftime lead.

Williamston led by as many as 16 (53-37) in the third quarter, but the Cougars stormed back.

Catholic Central chipped away at the lead and outscored the Hornets 16-7 in the fourth quarter.

“When they were scoring and making that run and our lead was dwindling, we just kept talking about how we need to stick together,” said Williamston senior Mason Docks, who scored a team-high 27 points and knocked down six 3-pointers.

“We had to keep trusting each other and not get away from what we do. If we started being selfish, then we would've lost that game.”

Despite missing all five free throw attempts down the stretch in the fourth quarter and going a dismal 9 of 21 from the line for the game, the Hornets still had confidence in overtime.

“We had to have trust in our team,” said Hornets 6-foot-10 senior Max Burton, who had 23 points before fouling out. We had to trust that our guards would make the right plays, and we would just go out there and finish it.

GRCC/Williamston basketball“We haven’t had a lot of close games this year, but we knew how to handle these situations from AAU and in practice. We knew this wasn’t going to be a cake walk because Catholic Central is an extremely tough squad with great guards.”  

Docks made a crucial 3-pointer in overtime to give the Hornets the lead for good.

Senior Jacob Wallace added 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists for Williamston.

The Cougars erased the 16-point deficit in part thanks to the stellar play of junior guard Kaden Brown, who had a game-high 33 points, including 25 during the second half and overtime.

He forced extra time with a 3-pointer from the corner with 44 seconds left in regulation that tied the score at 59-59.

“We’ve had a few games like that this year where we’ve been down big, but a lot of credit goes to our players in the huddle for staying calm at halftime and then just regrouping,” Catholic Central coach TJ Meerman said. “We kept battling, but tonight was an absolute battle of wills. Their will to take the game over early and our will to come back.”

The Cougars (25-2) lost for only the second time this season. Their only other defeat was to Division 3 semifinalist Flint Beecher.

Catholic Central senior and Mr. Basketball finalist Jack Karasinski had 16 points, but picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter and fouled out late in regulation.

Sophomore Durral Brooks had nine points and nine rebounds.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Williamston celebrates its Division 2 championship Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Middle) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Kaden Brown (4) defends against Williamston’s Mason Docks (21). (Below) The Hornets’ Max Burton (10) goes strong to the basket. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Longtime Coach Researches Photos to Tell Story of Grand Rapids Sports' Past

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

September 16, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Bob Schichtel always pauses when he comes across the ancient black and white photo long enough to ponder whatever became of the two youngsters adorned in Grand Rapids Union basketball uniforms.

The posed shot shows two players facing each other in a local gymnasium in a photo apparently taken four days after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that launched the country into World War II. Only a handful of fans today would recognize the players' striped, ultra-short shots and simple sleeveless shirts with "Union" emblazed across the front as recognizable basketball uniforms. One holds a battered-looking basketball, while the other looks on. The two players, whose uniform numbers are "4" and "9," aren't really smiling, but still seem as close as any teammates, whether 81 years ago or today.

In fact, it's the look the youngsters share that intrigues Schichtel, whose thankless, pro bono job it is to identify the two players.

"Once you start," said Schichtel, a former longtime Grand Rapids basketball coach, "it's like looking down a deep rabbit hole."

Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. Schichtel works as a volunteer for the Grand Rapids Public Library trying to identify mostly former Grand Rapids City League basketball players from approximately 1938 through the early fifties. The online photos are mostly from the Robinson Photo Studio Collection taken in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Herald newspaper. The library says the unique collection spans some 950 basketball negatives from the entire Robinson/Herald collection that totals well over 900,000 Grand Rapids photos.

While the work – which amounts to a ton of patience combined with a detective ability – can be exhausting, it's still what Schichtel describes as a labor of love. For example, there's the shot of the two still-unidentified Union players. Schichtel looks at the photo and can't help but wonder whatever happened to the kids. Were they exceptional athletes? Did they leave their marks on Grand Rapids history, whether it was in education, politics, business, industry, the arts or another field? He doesn't even know, as in many photos from this era, whether the two entered the military and thus even survived World War II.

Schichtel has searched everywhere for the answers, but has come up short. Too many times, in fact.

Which isn't to say he'll quit looking or chalk up his research as inconsequential. Schichtel said the foremost reason he spends hours on the project is that many of the athletes he identifies deserve the recognition for achievements far beyond basketball. In many cases former City League basketball, football, baseball, track and tennis athletes became the foundation on which Grand Rapids was built. If Schichtel can uncover an old photo which depicts these youngsters during their high school careers, so much the better, he said.

"It's important to recognize Grand Rapids sports history, and I don't know if we've given enough attention to their past," Schichtel said. "They are what got us here, and I'm a firm believer they need to be recognized for it."

Figuring out that history, however, ranges from, at the least, extremely time consuming to – in too many frustrating cases – virtually impossible. The City League was formed in the late 1920s and featured original schools Grand Rapids Central, Creston, South, Union, Ottawa Hills, Catholic Central and Davis Tech. The league was eventually folded into the Ottawa-Kent Conference in 2008. 

"It was a long, evolving league," Schichtel said.

Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. The identification tools available to Schichtel are actually more numerous than most would suspect. For starters, he's formed an impressive database of information by pouring through old City League yearbooks and programs, photos from other collections and microfilm of old newspapers, And then there's also the knowledge gathered by Schichtel himself, a 1968 Grand Rapids Catholic Central graduate. After playing in many old City League gymnasiums, Schichtel went on to compile a 389-197 record in 27 years as the Cougars girls basketball coach. He uses countless City League contacts as both a player and coach to identify athletes. In all, Schichtel taught in the Grand Rapids school system for 34 years.

He also uses the game itself to identify the photos. For instance, he can pinpoint some photos simply by the styles of the uniforms worn by players. He also figures out who is who by other clues such as what the players are doing in the photo. If a player is taking a set shot in the photo, it's likely pre-World War II. The beginnings of the jump shot, or what Schichtel calls "elevation while shooting," is probably mid-1940s. In addition, Schichtel can identify photos through pure basketball athleticism. Players can look a bit awkward in shots from the thirties as compared to players from the late 1940s who were beginning to play with a more obvious flare.

Put all the information together and Schichtel, who has uncovered more than two dozen personal connections to subjects in the photos, believes he has a reasonable shot at identifying them.

Since he signed on with the project, Schichtel figures he's identified about 10 percent of the photos he's viewed. Among the City League athletes he's found shots of Central's John Lavan, who was born in 1890 and played Major League Baseball during the Babe Ruth era and became a military hero who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Creston basketball player Roger Wilkins, an assistant United States attorney general during the Watergate hearings; Art Spoelstra of Godwin, a former NBA player and member of the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame; and Grand Rapids native Bill Cutler, who turned a chance post-World War II meeting with then-American League president Will Harridge into a position as commissioner of the Pacific Coast League,

Schichtel said gaining information through photos on the people who became the bedrock of Grand Rapids should be celebrated.

"I think it's a great approach for the community; they shouldn't be forgotten," Schichtel said. "Who else is going to do this? Why do I do it? I see a certain, for lack of a better word, a nobility. These kids played for the love of game, and they became the “Greatest Generation.” These kids did great things. It's not just, 'Well, there's No. 58,’ in a photo.

"You want to know more about them. That's the real intrigue for me."

Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. Tim Gloege of the Grand Rapids Public Library said the collection of photos – and their identification – is continually growing. As more people log onto the library's website, more people want to either add to the collection or have information that leads to an identification. The library estimates about 1,200 photos are searched monthly. But as time grows, many of the original photos are disintegrating. The library is in a constant state of preservation, Gloege said.

"It's a massive project, and we're working to get as many photos online as possible," he said. "The numbers (of photos) we have are rising pretty significantly as people post them on social media.

"When you think of the past and now, you need to realize these are people, kids who used to play basketball and did other things. The work is hard and very time-intensive, but it brings a whole new dimension to history."

Schichtel said he's "kind of picked the low-hanging fruit" on many of the easy photos to identify. But the work will continue.

"Yes, it can be frustrating," he said. "There are limitations if you want it to be accurate. Sometimes you look at a photo and you know it's not going to happen, and you move on. But this a chance to learn about people who made Grand Rapids what it is. That's important to me."

PHOTOS (Top) Two Grand Rapids Union basketball players stand for a photo taken Dec. 12, 1941. (2) Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. (3) Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. (4) Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. (Historic photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.)