EAST LANSING – Grand Blanc started off this season 1-3, which made the prospect of repeating as Division 1 champion seem potentially short of reality.
And no one would have blamed the Bobcats if they had a down year.
But veteran coach Mike Thomas rallied his young team – which starts all underclassmen and with just one senior in the regular rotation – and made a couple of subtle adjustments, and the group proceeded to rattle off 20 wins over its next 22 games, including a convincing 61-40 victory over Belleville on Friday in the second Division 1 Semifinal at the Breslin Center.
“Early on, we were trying to figure out ourselves,” said Thomas, in his fifth year as Grand Blanc’s coach. “How are we going to win? How are we going to score?”
Thomas said the big change occurred when 6-foot-3 junior Tae Boyd started playing inside, giving the Bobcats a legitimate interior threat to complement the dynamic junior point guard duo of RJ Taylor and Amont’e Allen-Johnson.
That trio was all in double figures Friday, putting Grand Blanc (21-5) in position to win a second-straight title at 12:15 p.m. Saturday against Warren De La Salle Collegiate (19-7).
The Bobcats, whose only Finals appearance before last year was a Class B runner-up finish 60 years ago (in 1952), defeated Ann Arbor Huron 45-36 in last year’s championship game. Boyd said the experience of playing two games at the Breslin last year made a huge difference Friday.
“Playing here last year gave us a boost of confidence that we can come here and make history and go back-to-back,” said Boyd, who scored 13 points and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
The Bobcats seized control early, taking a 17-6 lead after the first quarter and extending it to 30-15 by halftime, thanks to a buzzer-beater by reserve Bryce O’Mara.
Thomas said the key to the win was defense, which bore out in the final statistics. Grand Blanc shot 46 percent from the floor for the game, compared to 31 percent for Belleville. The Bobcats also forced 15 turnovers, which led to a 15-4 edge in points off turnovers.
He gave credit for setting the defensive tone to the guard duo of Taylor (salt) and Allen-Johnson (pepper).
“I call them salt and pepper because they will shake you up,” said Thomas, whose team won the Saginaw Valley League title. “I think they are the two best point guards in the state. They know exactly what we want to do and exactly how to run it. They are our leaders.”
Allen-Johnson finished with a game-high 15 points, along with six rebounds and three steals. Taylor, who scored 10 points with five rebounds and a team-high four assists, said playing regular-season games in big gyms and hostile environments prepared the team for Friday.
“We played in Detroit gyms, we played in tough Flint gyms, we played in a tournament in Grand Rapids,” said Taylor, a 6-0 sharpshooter and returning first-team all-stater. “An environment like this feels normal for us.”
Belleville, which was seeking its first championship game appearance since losing in the Class A Final in 1998, was never able to get within 15 points in the second half.
“It could have been legs, it could be nerves – it was our first time playing here,” said ninth-year Belleville coach Adam Trumpour, who guided his team to the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East title. “It just wasn’t our night at all on the offensive end.”
The Tigers had no players reach double figures in scoring.
Bryce Radtka, a 6-8 senior, scored nine points with eight rebounds for the Tigers, while senior guard Da’Jon Johnson also scored nine points with four assists.
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Blanc's Robert Williams (0) makes his move into the lane as Belleville's Bryce Radtka defends. (Middle) Grand Blanc's Donnie Huddleston (35) gets a hand up on a jumpshot. (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.)