By Geoff Kimmerly
Special for Second Half
Soon we’ll be celebrating District, Regional and Finals champions in boys basketball.
Take, for example, Burton Bentley, which clinched its first league title in 41 years earlier this month after going 9-12 a year ago. Or Okemos, which made an impressive yet at least a little bit unexpected closing run mentioned more below. Last week had a few more surprise wins too that could make storylines more interesting as we get into tournament mode.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Novi 71, Canton 56 – The Wildcats have rattled off six straight wins and with this one not only earned a spot in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association championship game, but also handed Canton its only loss this season.
2. Okemos 64, East Lansing 56 – Okemos had beaten the Trojans without star Brandon Johns on Jan. 19, but this win over East Lansing with him clinched for the Chiefs the outright Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title.
3. Maple City Glen Lake 53, Frankfort 47 – This tied things up at the top of the Northwest Conference with Glen Lake, Frankfort and Buckley in line to share the title with one last league game to play.
4. Ishpeming 53, Iron Mountain 47 – Second place Ishpeming can’t catch Iron Mountain in the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference, but on this night the Hematites handed the Mountaineers their lone defeat this winter.
5. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood 52, Madison Heights Bishop Foley 36 – After going 12-10 last season, Cranbrook is 18-1 and won the Catholic League C-D tournament title with this victory.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each class making sparks:
Detroit U-D Jesuit. (16-3) – The Cubs are Detroit Catholic League Central and A-B tournament champs again, and haven’t lost a game instate since Dec. 15. Jesuit opened this season with a four-point overtime win over Detroit Edison, and will see now-Detroit Public School League champ Edison again Thursday in an Operation Friendship game.
Flint Carman-Ainsworth (17-2) – The Cavaliers won the Saginaw Valley League by three games and gave reigning Class A champion Clarkston one of its few challenges this season, falling by just five on Dec. 7. The only other loss came to Holland West Ottawa (17-2), and nonleague wins over Grand Blanc (16-3), Detroit Renaissance (11-5) and Flint Hamady (13-5) should have Carman-Ainsworth prepared as well.
Detroit Voyageur (18-0) – The Cougars are an intriguing team to watch over the next few weeks coming off Michigan Metro Athletic Conference division and tournament championships and with a win as well over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (14-4). The Gators and MMAC Black runner-up Detroit Community (10-5) are the only opponents that have come within single digits.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (16-1) – Considered a Class B contender from the start this season, GRCC has lost only to another in Wyoming Godwin Heights. The Cougars since have won 13 straight and all by double digits, including a pair against Spring Lake (15-4).
Hanover-Horton (16-2) – The Comets have clinched a share of the Cascades Conference title after tying for second last season, and are well on their way to equaling or bettering last year’s 19-4 overall finish. Only second-place Michigan Center (15-2) has come within single digits during Hanover-Horton’s 12-game winning streak.
Kalamazoo Christian (18-1) – The Comets have built on last season’s surprising run to the Quarterfinals with a perfect one through the Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley. The only loss came to SAC Lakeshore winner Coloma (17-2), 58-52 on Jan. 23.
Ellsworth (16-3) – Friday’s win over Vanderbilt clinched a shared Northern Lights Conference title for Ellsworth, which improved from finishing runner-up a year ago. The Lancers haven’t had a game closer than 28 points since falling Jan. 26 in their second meeting this season with eventual league co-champ Wolverine (16-1).
Flint International Academy (17-2) – In its first season in the conference, International can clinch the North Central Thumb League Stars championship outright Tuesday against Kinde-North Huron and has won 12 straight including avenging an earlier loss to second-place Dryden (12-6). Two more big wins have come over Kingston (16-3).
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Waterford Mott (16-3) at White Lake Lakeland (15-4) – Both have doubled their win totals from last season, and Mott can clinch the inaugural Lakes Valley Conference title outright.
Thursday – Hazel Park (17-1) at Clarkston (17-1) – The Wolves won the first meeting big, but a Hazel Park return favor would mean a shared Oakland Activities Association Red title as long as neither trips up Tuesday.
Thursday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (16-1) at Holland West Ottawa (17-2) – These league champions get one more tune up before going their separate ways for the tournament.
Thursday – Benton Harbor (18-1) at Wyoming (15-4) – The Wolves also are a league champ and can get one more test before the Class A tournament against this Class B favorite.
Thursday – Novi (12-7) at Grand Blanc (16-3) – The KLAA championship game will pit Gold champion Grand Blanc against the runner-up Wildcats for the third time after winning the first two meetings.
PHOTO: Okemos, here against Grand Ledge, clinched a league title last week by finishing a season sweep of East Lansing. (Click for 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.)