Esler Pilots DeLaSalle Back to Final Week

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 19, 2018

WARREN – There isn’t much that Greg Esler hasn’t seen or experienced as a coach and as a father.

Through it all he’s learned to take nothing for granted, in life and as a coach.

Esler, 63, coached St. Clair Shores Lake Shore to its first and only MHSAA boys basketball title in 1994, in Class B. That team was led by Travis Conlan, who finished second in the voting for Mr. Basketball that season. Conlan would go on to play at University of Michigan, one of a number of Esler-coached players who went on to the college – and for some – professional ranks.

Esler is in his 31st season as a head coach, with the last 24 at Warren DeLaSalle. Twenty-one times the Pilots have won a District title with Esler on the bench. In 2007, DeLaSalle reached a Class A Semifinal for just the second time in school history, as it lost to Manny Harris and Detroit Redford 56-50. (Note: In addition to two Class A Semifinal appearances, DeLaSalle also reached a Class B Final in 1982).

Consistency has been a hallmark of Esler’s programs, and even after all these years a fire burns in his stomach. He’s retained a burning desire to compete and to win. As the years have piled up, Esler has become more appreciative of the success his program has achieved and the experiences gained.

So when DeLaSalle defeated Macomb Dakota, 56-51, in a Regional Final last Wednesday, there was reason to celebrate. As good as DeLaSalle has been recently, it hadn’t won a Regional title since 2010. The Pilots have been to the Detroit Catholic League final each of the last three seasons and have won five District titles since 2010 including the last three. But the end of last season stung more than most. DeLaSalle reached a Regional Final and then lost to Troy, 48-40, in an ugly game where the Pilots shot less than 30 percent from the field.

Most of that team is back as the Pilots head into the final week of this season. Esler has nine seniors including two of the top players in the league in point guard Justin Fischer and guard-forward Luke Pfromm, the starting quarterback on the Division 2 championship football team.

Esler started coaching at Warren St. Anne grade school in 1983, then went to DeLaSalle for three seasons beginning in 1985 under then-coach Gary Buslepp. Esler got his shot as a head coach in 1987 at Lake Shore and quickly made that program relevant. Lake Shore reached the Class B Semifinals in 1993 before losing to coach Norwaine Reed and Saginaw Buena Vista.

Esler took over the DeLaSalle program at the start of the 1994-95 season. His career record stands at 530-216 heading into tonight’s Class A Quarterfinal against Detroit U-D Jesuit.

“We instilled a system here,” he said. “The first thing is to have your players in condition. Second is defense. I’ve always stressed defense. And third, and maybe this should be first, is talent. We’ve always had really good players here. And the players we’ve had want to get better.”

What often goes unnoticed in a basketball program is the work of the assistant coaches. Esler has been blessed with loyal and knowledgeable assistants. His top assistant is Tom Mehl, who played for Esler for two seasons at Lake Shore. Mehl was on staff for Esler’s last four seasons at Lake Shore and has been with Esler every step of the way at DeLaSalle.

Jeff Becker is in his 13th season as an assistant, and another, Dave Grauzer, recently left the program and now is an assistant at Traverse City West.

“Surrounding yourself with good people is at the top of the list,” Esler said. “One thing about Tom, there’s no one I’ve seen who can go to a game to scout and pick up something no one else would see. Like a player who takes two dribbles before driving to his right or left. For Becker, it’s organization. He works well with the kids, and he’s got the post players. Mehl has the guards.

“Over the years I’ve listened. Listened to other coaches. I don’t have all the answers. I talk to Steve Hall at (Detroit) Cass Tech all the time. He’s been a great friend over the years.”

This team has a closeness not always seen. The fact that there are nine seniors is one reason. Esler points out that he’s been with this group for more than 100 days this season, and when you’re around a group that long tempers can flare – so it’s important to keep the present in perspective and realize they all want to reach the same goal.

“We do a lot of things outside of basketball,” Esler said. “Last week four of my captains read to the students at (St. Clair Shores) St. Germaine grade school. My wife, Renee, is a fourth and fifth grade teacher there, and it’s way for the players to interact with the younger students.

“I read an article recently on (Michigan) coach (John) Beilein and how the game has changed. The kids have changed. We watch game film but not like we used to. Their attention span isn’t like it used to be. The technology now, with Facebook and texting, it’s unbelievable. We might watch film for 20 minutes where we used to watch for hours.

“My players will tell you, I love the practices much more than they do. Games are like taking a test. If you didn’t win, maybe you failed at some area that cost you. They love each other and they do a good job of listening. All five starters have scored 20 points or more in a game this season. And they don’t get rattled. We were down four to Dakota with four minutes to go and Pfromm came to me in the huddle and said, ‘Don’t worry coach. We got this.’ I can see why they won a state title in football.”

Fischer has matured significantly as a leader and force offensively. A three-year starter, he has signed with Lake Superior State.

Fischer came into the program as a skinny 5-foot-10 freshman. By the time he was a junior, he had grown five inches. Now he’s 6-4 and weighs 185 pounds.

“I was a pass-first guard as a sophomore,” he said. “I’ve worked on my shooting, just working on my total game.

“We were pumped up for that Dakota game. We got the crowd going crazy. We were down and Luke hit a couple of 3s. I had a dunk and hit four free throws late.”

DeLaSalle (18-7) will play Catholic League Central rival Detroit U-D Jesuit (22-3) next. The Class A Quarterfinal will be played Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Calihan Hall, the site of the Catholic League final. Jesuit won that game, 71-64. In fact, Fischer has lost nine consecutive games to U-D as a varsity player.

He shouldn’t feel alone. DeLaSalle hasn’t defeated U-D since 2014 when the teams tied for the Catholic League Central regular-season title – a streak of 14 straight defeats to the Cubs. U-D won this season’s meetings 64-45, 59-57 and 64-55.

Esler keeps U-D recent domination of his program on the light side.

“I’ve said I’d have to coach until 2031 to get to .500 against them,” he said.

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle coach Greg Esler talks things over during his team’s Regional Final win against Macomb Dakota. (Middle) Justin Fischer launches a free throw during the 56-51 victory.

Hart Teammates Reunite After 80 Years Now as WWII Vets, Great-Grandfathers

By Tom Kendra
Special for

June 7, 2023

Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.

West MichiganNo one could have guessed that less than two months after graduation (on July 2, 1943), the two friends would head to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, the first stop on their way overseas to fight for their country in World War II.

No one could have imagined how many twists and turns their lives would take over the next 80 years – from the battlefields in the South Pacific, then back to West Michigan where they both were married with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now Harold even has a great-great-grandchild.

And, certainly, no one would have believed that the two young boys from Hart – who forged a friendship through high school sports long before the days of computers, microwave ovens and cell phones – would still be alive at the age of 98 for an emotional reunion last month, on May 22, seeing each other for the first time in 80 years and, to cap it off, the reunion took place in their hometown of Hart.

“It was such a great day,” Hansen said about the meeting, which was set up by Muskegon-area World War II historian Richard Mullally.

“We picked right up, talking about sports and the service and everything else.”

The conversation came easy for the two old friends, who played for Hart during a “golden era” at the school – particularly in basketball, as the Pirates won 11 West Michigan Conference basketball titles between 1940 and 1954.

Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. Perhaps the best team during that time period was Hansen and Tate’s as seniors in 1943. That team lost only once, to rival Scottville (31-25), but more than made up for it with an 80-10 trouncing of the Spartans in the final regular-season game.

Hart then crushed Scottville and Newaygo to win the District championship, only to have Michigan’s prep basketball season stopped abruptly at that point because of World War II.

That 1943 team featured four starters over 6-0, led by the duo of Hansen and Stan Kapulak (both 6-6), Joe Mack (6-2), Lyle Burmeister (6-1) and Stanley Riley (the lone starter under 6-foot at 5-11).

“The newspapers called us ‘The Hart Skyscrapers,’” said Hansen, who will be 99 on Nov. 6. “We were taller than most college teams at that time.”

Hansen and Tate’s friendship continued to blossom on the baseball field, only to have their lives turned upside down shortly after graduation 80 years ago, when all Hart senior boys who had been drafted headed to Battle Creek as a brief staging area on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific.

Hansen served in the Army Specialized Training Program and was part of the 52nd Signal Battalion and the 4025th Signal Battalion in the Pacific Theater.

“I had an all-expense paid tour of the South Pacific,” Hansen said with a chuckle. “The Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Hawaii, all over the place.”

Tate did his service in the 24th Infantry Division and the 19th Infantry Regiment, and was stationed in Japan.

During their visit last month, Harold showed off the Japanese Samurai sword and Arisaka rifle which he had sent back from Japan to Hart. The week after their visit, both took part in Memorial Day parades – Hansen in the Lakeside parade in Muskegon and Tate in his 77th Memorial Day service in Hart.

Hansen, who still has a home on a small lake in Holton and lives at a senior care facility in Muskegon, played many years of semi-pro basketball and did some coaching. He worked at GTE and has five children and 10 grandchildren.

Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II.“I have been so blessed,” Hansen said, sorting through one of his many scrapbooks. “All five of my kids are great and I have grandkids that are just amazing, everything they are doing. I don’t even know all of their names, but it’s sure been fun watching them.”

Tate returned to Hart after his military service and has been there ever since, at first working as a carpenter with his father and then becoming a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring 26 years ago at the age of 72. He has lived in the same home for 75 years and has three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandkids and now one great-great-grandchild.

Tate laments the demise of his beloved American Legion post in Hart, a town with just over 2,000 residents, as the number of members has steadily declined.

One topic that brings a smile to both of their faces is the recent resurgence of the Hart High School athletic program, which drew media attention not too many years ago for all the wrong reasons – notably a football program which went 24 years without a winning record.

That string was snapped with a 6-3 mark and the school’s first earned playoff appearance last fall.

But that was just the start.

This winter, Hart’s boys basketball team finished the regular season 22-0, the girls basketball team made it to the Division 3 Semifinals at the Breslin Center, wrestling qualified for the Team Finals for the fourth-straight year and competitive cheer placed fourth in Division 4. This spring, the Hart girls track & field team won its second-straight Division 3 Finals team title, and the boys placed fourth.

“It’s a great place to call home, a great place to live, always has been,” said Hansen of his hometown, which got its name from its central position in the “heart” of Oceana County.

And who would have imagined that these two high school teammates could still come home again for a reunion at the age of 98?

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Members of the 1943 Hart High School varsity baseball team gather together, preparing for a team photo. Among those are Harold Gayle Tate (far left) and Walter "Stretch" Hansen, at 6-6 the tallest player in the back row. (Middle) Hansen, left, and Tate reunite for the first time in 80 years on Monday, May 22, 2023, in their hometown of Hart. (Below) Hansen served from 1943 to 1946 as a Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tate served from 1945 to 1946 as a Platoon Sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Top photo courtesy of Stretch Hansen. Middle and below photos courtesy of Richard Mullally.)