By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Few high school teams have made a home of Michigan State University’s Breslin Center like Flint Beecher over the last decade.
That’s what made last season’s just-miss of MHSAA Finals weekend so unsettling. And Beecher seemed to take out all of its disappointment on Hanover-Horton during the first half of Thursday’s Class C Semifinal.
Back at Breslin for the sixth time in eight seasons, Beecher scored the first 11 points to pull away almost immediately on the way to defeating the Comets 71-43.
The Buccaneers’ 2013-14 season ended with a one-point Quarterfinal loss to eventual runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia. In its return to the semis, Beecher led by 20 at the end of the first quarter and 31 by halftime.
“I just wanted to get off to a quick start, start the team off fast. We wanted this bad,” Beecher senior guard Samuel Toins said. “Last year we suffered a heartbreak, and we didn’t want to feel that pain like we felt last year.”
Top-ranked Beecher (25-1) will seek its sixth MHSAA title at 4 p.m. Saturday against Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian. A title would be the Bucs’ third in four seasons – they won back-to-back in Class C in 2012 and 2013.
They’ve had similar hot starts to Thursday, Toins said, “but this is the most important.”
He had 11 points, with three 3-pointers, and all five starters scored as Beecher built a 23-3 advantage by the end of the first quarter.
Bucs coach Mike Williams said his only worry coming into Thursday was that his players might be distracted by their return. But again, they seemed right at home making 51 percent of their shots from the Breslin floor – including 56 percent of their tries from 3-point range.
Beecher scored 27 points off turnovers and outscored Hanover-Horton on the break 11-0, taking advantage of 21 turnovers brought on in part by the defensive press.
That all has been part of the plan for getting back to Breslin – Williams puts his players through practices where they run to exhaustion first, and then scrimmage, to prepare for championship-caliber pace.
The Bucs set it Thursday.
“There have been some days when … these guys wanted to strangle me,” Williams said. “But to get to this point, I told them if they can’t handle me in practice, when the pressure is on in games, they won’t be able to handle it. … I like to think that’s what got these kids over the top.”
Senior guard Cedric Moten added 18 points for Beecher, and sophomore forward Levane Blake had 11 and eight rebounds.
Junior forward Preston Laketa had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Hanover-Horton (24-2), which did outscore Beecher 30-27 during the second half.
The Semifinal was the Comets’ first since 2003, and Beecher was the fourth ranked opponent they’d faced this tournament. Hanover-Horton, No. 8, beat No. 4 Hillsdale, No. 6 Jackson Lumen Christi and No. 9 Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central during the run.
“(The first half) was probably the worst half of basketball we’ve played, and I know they had a lot to do with it,” Hanover-Horton coach Chad Mortimer said. “We started off with turnovers, didn’t take a shot for a few minutes. … It was over quick.
“We ran into some really good teams along the way in the tournament, but we ran into a buzz saw today that was on top of their game, and we weren’t.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Beecher players celebrate their victory over Hanover-Horton and return to the Class C Final. (Middle) Beecher and Hanover-Horton players scramble for a loose ball Thursday.
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.)