By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Last week was unkind to many who had enjoyed perfect runs through most of the first half of this boys basketball season.
Of course, the best teams rarely make it through an entire season unscathed – and often that’s a good thing. Five of eight teams on this week’s “Watch List” below have lost at least once and a couple have three defeats – but are still making major impressions as we roll along toward March.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Renaissance 60, Detroit Cass Tech 57 – More on Renaissance’s surge below, but this one announced it as Cass Tech had been in the talk as the best in Class A.
2. Kalamazoo Central 55, Mattawan 47 – The Maroon Giants are quietly off to another strong first half, sitting alone in first in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East after handing Mattawan its first loss of the season.
3. Maple City Glen Lake 54, Frankfort 45 – The Lakers had quite a week, handing Frankfort its first loss to move into a three-way tie atop the Northwest Conference before defeating Lake Michigan Conference leader Traverse City St. Francis two days later.
4. Rochester 71, Berkley 55 – Rochester moved into first place alone in the Oakland Activities Association Blue while handing Berkley its first loss overall.
5. Buckley 62, Manton 60 – These teams went a combined 47-6 last season in both making it to the Breslin Center; they are a combined 13-6 with high aspirations again this winter.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each class making sparks:
Detroit Renaissance (8-3) – The Phoenix finished 6-14 only a season ago, but the rise has been sharp and impressive over the last two months. Right after downing Cass Tech last week, Renaissance also defeated Class B contender Detroit Henry Ford – which beat the Phoenix by three Dec. 19. The three loses this season are by a combined nine points; Renaissance fell early by four to Flint Carman-Ainsworth and then by a basket to Ann Arbor Huron in overtime (those two are 15-3 combined).
Okemos (7-3) – Last week’s 60-55 win over East Lansing requires context; Trojans all-stater Brandon Johns was unable to play, reportedly resting a lingering knee injury. Regardless, the victory pushed the Chiefs into a first-place tie with Grand Ledge in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue after Okemos finished fourth and 12-9 overall last season. The only losses this winter were to the Comets, DeWitt and Troy Athens (24-6 combined) in December; the Chiefs are 4-0 in 2018.
Coloma (9-0) – A 54-49 overtime win over nonleague foe Kalamazoo Hackett on Saturday didn’t enhance Coloma’s standing atop the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore, but did further the Comets’ standing as a team to watch statewide (Hackett fell to 9-2). Coloma improved from five wins two seasons ago to 13 and second in the Lakeshore last winter, and it has a one-game lead on Fennville heading into their second meeting this season Friday. The Comets won the first 71-64 on Dec. 8.
Fremont (7-2) – After two seasons winning only six games apiece, Fremont improved to 13-8 last winter and has continued to climb. The Packers have won five straight to rise to first place in the Central State Activities Association Gold despite suffering a loss to third-place Reed City during a 2-2 start. They are perfect this month and started the run with a 54-49 win over second-place Big Rapids.
Capac (9-0) – The Chiefs have nearly guaranteed their first winning season since 2010-11, and are set up to play for more. Coming off an 8-13 finish a year ago, Capac finds itself tied for first in the Blue Water Area Conference with Richmond, and they’ll meet for the first time next week. The Chiefs handed former co-leader Almont its first league loss Friday, 41-35, and have won six games by double digits.
Ottawa Lake Whiteford (7-2) – The Bobcats’ Division 8 championship football success seems to be following into the winter, as they moved into first place alone in the Tri-County Conference with a 63-42 win over Sand Creek on Thursday. Next up is second-place Petersburg-Summerfield, and a victory would be coach John Rice’s 500th. Whiteford’s only losses this winter are to Class A Temperance Bedford and also much larger Toledo Waite.
Ashley (9-1) – The Bears have run off nine straight victories to move into first place in the Mid-State Activities Conference with a matchup against second-place Carson City-Crystal coming up this week. Ashley won nine games total a year ago – and had 19 victories over the last five seasons combined entering this winter. The lone loss was by only three to Portland St. Patrick in its opener.
Bellevue (8-0) – Last season’s 23-2 run – an improvement of five wins from the solid season before – might have been just another step as the Broncos are surging again. The most impressive win may have come Thursday, 45-39 over Camden-Frontier which sent the Redskins to 9-3. The Broncos also beat Class C Carson City-Crystal and Lakeview to win the Central Montcalm Holiday Hoops Tournament, and have a two-win lead in the Southern Central Athletic Association West.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Grand Rapids Christian (6-2) at East Grand Rapids (9-1) – These two sit together at the top of the Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold after Christian was first and EGR only fifth last season.
Tuesday – Warren DeLaSalle (7-2) at Detroit U-D Jesuit (8-2) – This will be the first of two meetings (at least) between the current co-leaders of the Detroit Catholic League Central.
Tuesday – Grandville Calvin Christian (7-1) at Grand Rapids Covenant Christian (10-2) – Both should be in the Class C statewide mix again after Covenant was runner-up last season and Calvin was runner-up in 2016.
Tuesday – Coloma (9-0) at Kalamazoo Christian (9-0) – The leaders of the SAC Lakeshore and Valley, respectively, have made similar big moves in their divisions with a similar opportunity to gain a little more statewide acclaim.
Thursday – West Bloomfield (5-4) at Clarkston (10-1) – The overall records don’t look close, but West Bloomfield trails the Wolves by just a win in the OAA Red after both made the Class A semifinals last season (and Clarkston won it all).
PHOTO: Ottawa Lake Whiteford coach John Rice provides some pointers for his 7-2 Bobcats. (Photo by Cari Hayes.)
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.)