By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Last week from a boys basketball point of view was one to mostly forget, as just about every team statewide was forced to postpone one if not more games – bad news as we’re less than a month from the start of District play.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Benton Harbor 86, Ypsilanti Lincoln 83 – Another week, another big-time matchup for the Tigers, and this time they moved to 15-1 by handing Lincoln just its second loss of the season in the headlining game of the Redhawks Showcase at Grand Rapids Union.
2. Grand Rapids Christian 57, Kalamazoo Central 54 (OT) – Not to be outdone at Union, Grand Rapids Christian sank a halfcourt buzzer beater to break a two-game losing streak.
3. Muskegon 56, Grand Blanc 53 – Also at Union, the Big Reds won their seventh straight in handing the Saginaw Valley League-leading Bobcats a defeat.
4. Milford 37, Walled Lake Northern 34 – The Mavericks handed Northern their first loss of the season, in part leading Waterford Kettering to secure a shared championship in the Lakes Valley Conference.
5. Westland John Glenn 67, Wayne Memorial 63 – John Glenn finished a regular-season sweep of Wayne to create a three-way tie for first in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East between those two and Belleville.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
• Canton (13-1) – The Chiefs can lock up a share of the KLAA West title Tuesday against second-place (tied) Northville, which they beat by 19 on Dec. 20. Canton has won 24 straight league games, including a perfect run last season through the former KLAA Black. Canton also has won 13 straight this winter since falling to reigning Class C champion Detroit Edison by just three points, 69-66, in its opener.
• Okemos (14-1) – A loss three weeks ago to Detroit Catholic Central has been the only detour from an otherwise perfect run for Okemos this winter. The Chiefs can lock up a share of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title – which would be their second straight – with wins this week over Holt and East Lansing.
• Dearborn Divine Child (11-3) – The Falcons guaranteed themselves at least a share of the Detroit Catholic League AA championship Saturday with a 61-58 win over former leader Detroit Loyola – which had defeated Divine Child by six in overtime on Jan. 4. The title is the Falcons’ third straight either shared or outright, and the team’s only other losses are to Edison and another league leader in Rochester Adams.
• Grand Rapids South Christian (11-3) – A dramatic finish put Grand Rapids Christian among our top-five results above, but South Christian’s 56-50 win over the Eagles on Friday could end up much more significant. It avenged the Sailors’ loss in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 4, and put South Christian in first in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold as well as extended an eight-game winning streak since that defeat.
• Detroit Pershing (14-1) – The Doughboys finished a 10-0 run through the Detroit Public School League East-Town heading into this week’s PSL tournament. Pershing could be making some big plans over the next two months – the only loss this winter came by four to Toledo Scott, and an overtime win over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep early remains impressive. And don’t forget, Pershing’s 2017-18 season ended with a pretty strong six-point defeat to Edison in a Regional Semifinal.
• Oscoda (14-0) – The Owls won eight games two seasons ago and 14 last winter, and they’re guaranteed to at least equal that finish as they close in on an anticipated North Star League Big Dipper championship. Oscoda downed second-place Mio on Friday for the second time this season, 41-34, and after winning the first meeting by two points.
• Carsonville-Port Sanilac (11-2) – The Tigers lead the North Central Thumb League Stripes title chase and have won nine straight games after opening the season 2-2. Carsonville-Port Sanilac finished just 6-14 a year ago and has guaranteed its first winning season since 2012-13.
• Frankfort (10-2) – The Panthers trail Northwest Conference leader Maple City Glen Lake by just a game heading into their rematch Thursday – Glen Lake won the first meeting by 25 on Jan. 9. Frankfort’s only other loss came Dec. 12 to Elk Rapids, a contender in the Lake Michigan Conference, as the annual success has continued under first-year coach Daniel Loney.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Monday – Martin (9-1) at Coloma (8-4) – These two are tied for first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore after Coloma’s win Friday over another former co-leader Fennville.
Tuesday – Hudsonville Unity Christian (12-2) at Holland Christian (11-2) – Unity Christian can’t lock up the O-K Green title yet, but only one of its league games has been decided by single digits and the Crusaders won the first meeting of this series by 21 on Jan. 8.
Tuesday – Kalamazoo Central (9-2) at Mattawan (11-0) – The first-place team in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West hosts the leader of the SMAC East.
Tuesday – Kalamazoo Hackett (11-1) at Schoolcraft (13-1) – Thanks to a 16-point win in their first meeting Dec. 18, Hackett owns a slim lead over Schoolcraft in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley.
Saturday – New Lothrop (10-3) at Mount Morris (10-2) – Mount Morris is tied for first during this inaugural season for the Mid-Michigan Athletic Conference, but New Lothrop is just a game behind and also sees co-leader Ovid-Elsie again.
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PHOTO: Okemos, here against Lansing Waverly, can clinch a league title with a pair of wins this week. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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."
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.
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."
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.)