Facing Rare Deficit, Grand Blanc Finds Way to Finish

By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half

April 8, 2021

EAST LANSING — Sixteen games into the season, on the state’s biggest stage, and Grand Blanc head coach Mike Thomas is still learning things about his basketball team.

The Bobcats had surrendered the lead to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern after building a 12-point cushion just minutes earlier. They hadn’t come back from a second-half deficit this season. The games they had trailed in, they lost. So it was all new to Thomas.

“I didn’t know that,” said Thomas, speaking to whether his players had it in them to bounce back after facing adversity. “This is the first time we’ve been down, other than in our losses. Truthfully I didn’t know.”

Well now he does. Grand Blanc battled back and found a way to get it done against the Huskies, pulling out a 68-58 victory in a Division 1 Semifinal on Thursday at the Breslin Center. The Bobcats led the entire first half and stretched the lead to 42-30 after senior RJ Taylor found junior Ty Rodgers inside for a dunk with 6:59 to play.

But what seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the Huskies proved to be a wake-up call. 

Northern would score the game’s next 15 points. Senior Ethan Erickson got things going with a short jump shot in the paint. Less than a minute later, senior Gavin Fisher hit a 3-pointer, and followed it up with a layup on the break and another 3-pointer to cut the lead to two points. Grand Blanc would turn the ball over on its next two possessions, with Northern senior Trinidad Chambliss scoring on a layup and senior Cole Rynbrandt hitting a 3-pointer to give his team its first lead, 45-42.

“We had a great run in the third quarter to take the lead,” Northern head coach Joe Soules said. “We were in control of that game. And we’re sitting there going, ‘We’re going to be just fine.’ We’ve talked about it all year, ‘Be in the moment.’ The guys battled back just the way they were supposed to.”

2021 D1 Boys Basketball Semifinal - Grand Blanc

But the Huskies couldn’t maintain that momentum. Grand Blanc stopped the bleeding with a pair of Rodgers free throws, and proceeded to close the quarter with a 9-5 run to take a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Bobcats then scored the first seven points of the fourth to pull away from the Huskies. Sophomore Timonte Boyd opened the run with a layup — off a pass from Taylor — and sophomore Amont’e Allen-Johnson extended the lead to six with his 3-pointer. Rodgers capped it off by collecting a defensive rebound and sprinting down the court and finishing with a layup to make it a 58-50 game.

“It’s just heart,” Rodgers said of his team’s comeback. “Every day in practice, we work on situations, like us only being up by two with such and such many seconds left. We have a lot of heart, and our guys trust in me and RJ as leaders and we push each other. When someone’s not making their shots, we lift each other up.”

Rodgers finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while dishing out six assists. He set the tone early, with a hard drive to the basket for the game’s first score. Grand Blanc jumped out to a commanding 10-0 lead in the first 2:15 of the game.

“We don’t have anyone who quite matches up with (Rodgers), Soules said. “Not many teams in the state do. He’s a wonderful player, a great athlete. He got to the rim and exploded a couple of times. We just couldn’t contain that. Cole (Rynbrandt) and Ethan Morello did a phenomenal job of staying in front of him. He gets to the rim, almost at will, against high school competition with his frame.”

Taylor finished with 16 points and seven assists, and Boyd added 15 points for Grand Blanc (14-2). 

“Our guys fought and clawed, they overcame some adversity today,” Thomas said. “But they hung in there and stayed together. We talked about if things don’t go well, ‘You guys better get together and push each other up because you’re going to need it.’ They didn’t fold when they could have. They clawed back into the game and put things together to accomplish their goals.”

The Bobcats will take on Ann Arbor Huron (20-0) in Saturday’s Division 1 Final, set to tip off at 12:30 p.m.

Erickson led Northern with 19 points, while Fisher and Chambliss added 16 and 13, respectively. The Huskies finished the season 17-2.

“This was the greatest four-year stretch in Forest Hills Northern history,” Soules said. “We won three straight conference championships, multiple Districts and it’s only the second time we’ve ever been to the Breslin. It’s been so fun watching these young men mature, especially over the last 18 months. These seniors have been tremendous ambassadors, not only for Forest Hills Northern but for the game of basketball.”

Click for full box score

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc's Ty Rodgers (23) goes in for a dunk during Thursday's Division 1 Semifinal. (Middle) Forest Hills Northern's Trinidad Chambliss gets to the rim. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Longtime Coach Researches Photos to Tell Story of Grand Rapids Sports' Past

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

September 16, 2022

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."

Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. 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.

Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. 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."

Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. 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.)