By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Beginning tonight, 128 boys basketball District titles are up for grabs across our state.
Of course, some teams are favored – and we’ve told you about many of them over the last three months. But if we learn anything from year to year, it’s that we should expect plenty of the unexpected over the next three weeks.
Over the next two, we’ll alter the format of our Breslin Bound reports – powered by MI Student Aid – still looking at some of the key results from last week but also at three of the most eye-catching brackets in each class for the upcoming week of playoffs.
This week, that means we’ll take closer looks at 12 Districts total in addition to scores from last week that saw some of the state’s best match up one more time before single elimination games begin. (Click here to navigate brackets for all 128 tournaments.)
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit U-D Jesuit 68, Detroit Edison 63 – The Operation Friendship headliner went to the Detroit Catholic League A-B champ, but Class C and Public School League champ Edison could be tough to beat this month after playing much larger opponents all season.
2. Holland West Ottawa 59, Grand Rapids Catholic Central 49 – These two are expected to be among contenders this month in Class A and B, respectively; they finished the regular season a combined 35-4.
3. Clarkston 48, Hazel Park 38 – The Wolves played without injured star guard Foster Loyer and still won the Oakland Activities Association Red title outright by finishing a sweep of the second-place Vikings.
4. New Haven 81, Flint Beecher 70 – The reigning Class B champ downing the reigning Class C champ didn’t shock, but Beecher giving New Haven its second-closest game this season could be a sign the Buccaneers are rising as the tournament approaches.
5. Manton 75, Buckley 62 – These two are hoping to make return to trips to the Breslin Center in Class C and D, respectively, and got a nice tune-up with this late February rematch after Manton won the first meeting 62-60 on Jan. 20.
Districts at a Glance
These could be among our most competitive brackets. Host sites are in bold:
Ann Arbor Skyline
Ann Arbor Huron (15-5), Ann Arbor Pioneer (11-9), Ann Arbor Skyline (19-0), Dexter (13-6), Pinckney (7-13), Romulus (12-7).
Skyline won the Southeastern Conference Red title for the second straight season but took another step into the elite with nonleague wins over Belleville, Detroit Pershing and Wayne Memorial among others. Huron is an intriguing District Final opponent; the River Rats lost to Skyline twice but cut the margin in half from the first meeting in losing 58-49 on Feb. 12. Romulus, which finished second to Belleville in the Western Wayne Athletic Conference Blue, always seems to shine at tournament time and shouldn’t be forgotten despite closing the regular season with five straight defeats including a big one to the Eagles.
Berkley (10-10), Detroit Renaissance (13-7), Detroit U- D Jesuit (17-3), Hazel Park (18-2), Oak Park (18-2), Warren Fitzgerald (12-5).
Six teams from six leagues make up this District, with U-D Jesuit the champion of the Detroit Catholic League Central and Oak Park the champ of the Oakland Activities Association White. Hazel Park finished second in the OAA Red with both losses to reigning Class A champion Clarkston, while Renaissance and Fitzgerald also were contenders in their leagues and Berkley started this season 10-1 before a difficult second half set in. Jesuit has won eight straight, but Hazel Park took a win from the Cubs 74-63 on Dec. 15.
Alpena (9-10), Gaylord (11-9), Marquette (14-5), Petoskey (18-2), Traverse City Central (12-8), Traverse City West (12-7).
This District also features multiple league champions – Marquette from the Great Northern Conference and Petoskey from the Big North Conference. Those two met in the first game of this season, with Petoskey winning 55-38, but we could find out how much has changed over three months if they meet Friday. The Northmen have statewide aspirations, and their only losses were at Grand Haven 56-39 on Dec. 29 and 43-38 to league runner-up Cadillac (13-7) on Feb. 6. West advanced to the Regional Final last season.
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep
Algonac (1-18), Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (18-2), Macomb Lutheran North (6-14), New Haven (20-0), Pontiac (5-14), Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (11-9).
Reigning Class B champion New Haven would be a District favorite regardless of bracket, riding a 46-game winning streak and with only one opponent coming closer than 11 points this winter. But Cranbrook is an intriguing possible opponent in the District Final. The Cranes are coming off one of their two defeats, to Macomb Area Conference Bronze champion Madison Heights Madison, but won both the Catholic League Intersectional #1 and the C-D tournament title to highlight their best season this decade.
Remus Chippewa Hills
Alma (15-5), Big Rapids (15-5), Clare (17-3), Remus Chippewa Hills (6-14), Shepherd (6-14), Stanton Central Montcalm (7-13).
A pair of league champions meet in an opener tonight – Alma shared the Tri-Valley Conference Central, and Big Rapids shared the Central State Activities Association Gold title. The Cardinals fell in their opener a year ago, to eventual Class B runner-up Ludington, but are only two years removed from a Semifinal run. Awaiting on the other side of this bracket Friday could be Clare, which finished second in the Jack Pine Conference but is riding an eight-game winning streak and won a District title last year.
Grand Rapids South Christian (13-7), Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy (13-7), Kentwood Grand River Prep (9-9), Wyoming Godwin Heights (19-1), Wyoming Kelloggsville (17-3), Wyoming Lee (4-16).
Godwin Heights would be considered a New Haven-level slam dunk in just about any District as well, with its only loss Dec. 29 to Class A Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (18-2). But there are some dangerous games here. On the other side of the bracket, Kelloggsville was the runner-up to Godwin Heights in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Silver, but cut the margin from 29 to 12 when the teams met a second time Feb. 6. Kelloggsville must be careful tonight with the Sailors, who played mostly Class A teams in their league. Also notable, Aviation Academy finished third in the Alliance League and has improved three wins this season.
Burton Atherton (13-6), Burton Bendle (11-9), Burton Bentley (15-5), Flint Beecher (12-8), Flint Hamady (13-5), Montrose (10-10).
Beecher has won three straight Class C championships and five of the last six, and the Buccaneers’ record this season again requires context because five of those losses came to Class A contenders and two came to Class B powers including New Haven. The other loss, however, came to Hamady 77-71 on Feb. 2, and the rivals shared the Genesee Area Conference Red title. Likewise, Atherton and Bendle shared the GAC White title, and Bentley shared the GAC Blue championship – its first league title in 41 years. Hamady would have to beat Bendle and Bentley to reach Friday’s District Final, while Beecher takes on Montrose tonight and then would see Atherton.
Holton (6-14), Kent City (20-0), Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (12-8), North Muskegon (17-3), Ravenna (11-9).
A pair of league champions could face each other for this District title as well – Kent City won the CSAA Silver, and on the other side of the bracket is West Michigan Conference champ North Muskegon. But both should be cautious of Lake Michigan Conference runner-up Western Michigan Christian. The Warriors finished second in that league to reigning Class B runner-up Ludington and face Kent City on Wednesday. They also own a 46-40 win over North Muskegon from Dec. 22.
Maple City Glen Lake
Grand Traverse Academy (12-7), Manton (17-3), Maple City Glen Lake (18-2), Traverse City St. Francis (15-5).
Manton shared the Highland Conference title, Glen Lake shared the championship in the Northwest Conference and St. Francis won the Lake Michigan Conference outright. Grand Traverse also was in a title mix before finishing runner-up in the Cherryland Conference. There is some familiarity despite the different leagues, of course. Glen Lake beat St. Francis 49-40 on Jan. 20, and Manton – which went on to make the Class C Semifinals – beat Glen Lake in the Regional last year after Glen Lake beat St. Francis for the District title.
Athens (16-4), Battle Creek Calhoun Christian (12-8), Battle Creek St. Philip (10-9), Bellevue (19-1), Marshall Academy (16-2).
Bellevue and Athens finished first and second in the Southern Central Athletic Association West, respectively, and are on opposite sides of the bracket. Bellevue has won five straight District titles and posted two big wins on Athens during the regular season. The Indians will be part of an intriguing District Semifinal on Wednesday regardless of which team wins tonight’s opener. St. Philip finished third in the SCAA West and beat Athens 52-51 on Feb. 16, while Marshall Academy won the Mid-South Conference title.
Bear Lake (17-3), Brethren (8-12), Buckley (15-5), Fife Lake Forest Area (10-10), Mesick (3-17)
Buckley features three 1,000-point career scorers who experienced last season’s Class D runner-up finish, and the Bears have won 12 of their last 14 to keep a share of the Northwest Conference title against some of the best Class C/D competition in the state this winter. But they could meet a Bear Lake team in the District Semifinal that won its first league title since 2008 and also includes a 1,000-point scorer in Kaiden Hejl.
Bark River-Harris (12-7), Carney-Nadeau (13-7), Felch North Dickinson (2-18), Powers North Central (16-4), Stephenson (6-14).
This season saw three-time reigning Class D champ North Central’s record 84-game winning streak end. It also saw the rebuilt Jets win the Skyline Central Conference small-school division title, and they head into this week on a seven-game winning streak that has included victories over large-school champion Munising (17-3) and runner-up Bark River-Harris. North Central and Bark River-Harris could meet again Wednesday; Carney-Nadeau finished third to the Jets in league play and could await on the other side.
PHOTO: Baldwin and Beal City players work to gain possession during the Aggies’ 55-54 win Jan. 16. (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.)