By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
We’re heading into the midpoint of this boys basketball season, and the surprises keep coming.
Detroit Henry Ford and Grand Ledge were full of them last week, and Berkley has been one of the state’s most intriguing all season. We touch on those a little bit below, along with a number of others that most recently caught our attention.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Henry Ford 63, Detroit Cass Tech 60 – The Trojans should be back in the Class B title talk after handing a first loss to one of the major favorites in Class A.
2. Grand Ledge 59, East Lansing 53 – The Comets are 6-1 but weren’t getting much attention until this upset broke East Lansing’s 45-game regular-season winning streak.
3. Frankfort 69, Buckley 53 – The Panthers handed the reigning Class D runner-up this defeat after falling to Buckley by 39 and then only three last season.
4. Detroit Cass Tech 85, Muskegon 78 (OT) – The Technicians did not waste time bouncing back from the Henry Ford loss, downing Muskegon in overtime the next day at Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills.
5. Macomb Dakota 64, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley 62 – The Cougars took big losses early to Detroit U-D Jesuit and New Haven, but are undefeated in the Macomb Area Conference Red after handing Chippewa Valley its first defeat in the league and overall this winter.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each class making sparks:
Ann Arbor Skyline (7-0) – The Eagles have been building toward a start like this, even winning the Southeastern Conference Red title a year ago. They started the new year with a 20-point win over second-place Ann Arbor Pioneer on Saturday and have impressive wins by 14 over Belleville, one over Detroit Pershing and 20 over frequent nemesis Ann Arbor Huron.
Berkley (8-0) – The Bears have doubled their win total from last season after going 4-17, and they’re only a few more from guaranteeing a first winning season since 2010-11. They’ve pulled off a few close ones including a two-point victory over MAC Bronze leader Madison Heights Madison a month ago. Next up is Rochester with first place in the Oakland Activities Association Blue on the line.
Detroit Henry Ford (7-2) – The 2015-16 Class B champion still made the Regional last season despite finishing 13-11 overall, and another big run could be on the way. Ford opened this season with a two-point win over 2017 Class A semifinalist West Bloomfield, and has beaten a series of Class A teams including Cass Tech (see above). The losses came to Class A powers Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills and Hazel Park, the latter in overtime.
Ovid-Elsie (5-1) – The Marauders have hovered around .500 the last few seasons, but might have something more in store over the next two months after a fast start. Ovid-Elsie sits atop the Tri-Valley Conference West standings and hasn’t lost since its opener (to still-undefeated Fowler). Coming up Friday is a matchup with second-place Hemlock.
Norway (5-2) – The Knights moved over to the Skyline Central Conference after sharing the Mid-Peninsula Conference title last season and finishing 18-3 overall. They’ve won four straight and hold a half-game lead in the SCC’s Large School division. The two losses came in December in overtime to Powers North Central and by eight to nemesis Iron Mountain, which knocked Norway out of the tournament last season. Those two will face off again Feb. 9.
Sanford Meridian (7-1) – The Mustangs are playing for a second straight Jack Pine Conference championship and already have wins against usual annual contenders Beaverton and Clare. Meridian’s only loss was by 10 in early December to Class A Saginaw Heritage, and it’s got another similar test coming up against Midland Dow in two weeks.
Cedarville (7-2) – The Trojans are approaching the season’s midpoint in position to take back the Eastern Upper Peninsula Athletic Conference title after tying for second a year ago. Cedarville got past reigning champion Pickford 67-59 last week and has lost only to undefeated Hillman and Class B Boyne City.
Frankfort (6-0) – The Northwest Conference sent Buckley all the way to the Class D title game last year, and early this winter it’s Frankfort that could be setting up for a run. The Panthers held onto first place all alone in the league last week with a win over the Bears, and now face the other two teams with only one conference loss – Kingsley on Tuesday and Maple City Glen Lake on Thursday.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Rapid River (7-0) at Powers North Central (6-1) – The Rockets ended North Central’s record 84-game winning streak Dec. 7, but the Jets can make it six straight by taking the rematch.
Tuesday – Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (7-2) at Warren DeLaSalle (6-2) – In a strong Detroit Catholic League Central, these are two of the best; DeLaSalle leads and St. Mary’s is third after falling to second-place U-D Jesuit by a point last week.
Thursday – Bellevue (8-0) at Camden-Frontier (8-2) – Both are pushing for Southern Central Athletic Association titles; Bellevue is tied for first in the West and Camden-Frontier is second in the East, and this game counts in the standings for both.
Thursday – Maple City Glen Lake (5-1) at Frankfort (6-0) – The Panthers also must survive Kingsley on Tuesday to keep their perfect start going, and Glen Lake is aiming to gain a share of first place in the Northwest Conference too.
Friday – Hazel Park (8-0) at West Bloomfield (3-3) – Hazel Park and reigning Class A champion Clarkston have been the talk of a strong OAA Red, but West Bloomfield also is undefeated in league play after opening with three tough nonleague losses including two by only two points apiece.
PHOTO: Berkley, here against Clawson in December, is one of this season’s biggest surprises. (Photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)
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.)