EAST LANSING – What began playing out early like a certain blowout turned into quite a thriller to begin Thursday’s Division 4 Boys Basketball Semifinals at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.
Making its first Semifinals trip since since finishing Class D runner-up 1982, Ewen-Trout Creek was in full control in the first Division 4 matchup of the night with a double-digit lead for the majority of the game.
But appearing in its first-ever Semifinal, Lake Leelanau St. Mary pulled off a furious comeback, tying the game with just over two minutes remaining.
Ultimately, Ewen-Trout Creek made more plays from there, holding off St. Mary to earn a 62-56 win and advance to its first championship game since it won the Class D title in 1972.
“Wow,” Ewen-Trout Creek coach Brad Besonen said. “That was fantastic. High school sports at its finest. Two small schools on the big stage at Breslin Center. These guys have dreamed about being here forever. They’ve played together since second grade.”
After trailing 48-31 with 1:55 remaining in the third quarter, St. Mary began its rally, mainly because it finally found some rhythm offensively.
St. Mary scored the final six points of the third quarter to make it 48-37, but Ewen-Trout Creek restored its lead to 12 at 54-42 with 6:13 remaining.
Then, the Eagles made their big move.
St. Mary went on a 14-2 run over the next 4:11 to tie the game at 56-56 with 2:02 remaining.
The comeback wasn’t anything new to the Eagles, who trailed by 18 in the second half of their District Final against Buckley and by 12 points in the final five minutes of their Regional Final against McBain Northern Michigan Christian before rallying to win both games.
“They just have no quit in them,” St. Mary coach Matt Barnowski said.
But down the stretch, Ewen-Trout Creek regained its composure.
Senior Jaden Borseth gave the Panthers a 58-56 lead with 1:46 remaining, and after St. Mary had 3-point shots rim out on back-to-back possessions, Ewen-Trout Creek took a lead with 33.8 seconds left on two free throws by senior Kelsey Jilek.
Following another missed 3-pointer by St. Mary, Borseth made two free throws with 8.2 seconds remaining to make it 62-56 Panthers.
Jilek led the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds, Borseth scored 18 points and senior Eric Abramson added 15 points for Ewen-Trout Creek (23-3), which had its eye on this year the minute last season ended with a loss to Bessemer in the District round.
“We were in the gym the day after we lost,” Jilek said. “We wanted more than anything to make a run last year. We put everything we had into it, and here we are.”
St. Mary junior Shawn Bramer led all scorers with 25 points to go along with eight rebounds, and Schaub added 14 points to lead St. Mary (21-5).
The Eagles started the season 2-3, then went 19-2 the rest of the way to make school history.
“That was a fun game,” Barnowski said. “Everybody got their money’s worth, there’s no doubt about that. I’m proud of these kids.”
Ewen-Trout Creek got off to a good start offensively, making nine of its first 15 shots and taking a 20-14 lead after the first quarter.
Leading 24-18 in the second quarter, the Panthers started to separate, going on an 11-2 run to take a 35-20 advantage with 1:08 remaining before halftime.
The Panthers eventually took a 37-22 lead into the break.
PHOTOS (Top) Ewen-Trout Creek's Eric Abramson lays up a shot during his team's Division 4 Semifinal win Thursday. (Middle) St. Mary's Shawn Bramer (32) works to split the defense of Kelsey Jilek (24) and Brendan Polkky (44). (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
Walter “Stretch” Hansen and Harold Tate were good friends and high school basketball and baseball teammates at Hart High School, graduating in 1943.
No 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.
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.
“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 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.)