Who let the dogs out?
Who, who — let the Mesick Bulldogs — in?
That’s the question West Michigan D League rivals may be asking.
And, it’s more like a what … with the answer being the league’s expansion to 10 schools for the 2018-19 school year that paved the way for Mesick to enter.
Until that point, the Bulldogs were part of the Northwest Conference. They won only three games total over their last two years in the Northwest while competing against schools like Buckley – which reached the Class D championship game in both of the Bulldogs’ final two years in their old league. Mesick’s girls – 8-2 this winter – were struggling too.
The last two years in the Northwest also were the first two for the boys varsity under head coach Kyle Duby. The move may have helped turn things around for Mesick, along with extensive offseason work and youth development efforts.
The Mesick boys won five games in 2018-19 and six in 2019-2020 before going 11-6 last year and capturing a share of the West Michigan D championship – Mesick’s first piece of a conference basketball championship in 39 years.
Today, they Bulldogs are 7-0 and in the driver’s seat in league play. They have wins over league opponents Big Rapids Crossroads, Bear Lake, Brethren, Mason County Eastern, Walkerville and Baldwin.
The boys, with an outright conference championship on their minds, will finish their first run through the league schedule against Marion next week. Marion came into the West Michigan D at the same time as Mesick.
“This year we knew we wanted to win the conference outright,” said Duby, who also serves as the school’s athletic director. “That’s one of our goals.
“We also have a goal to make a run – whatever that may look like – in the postseason,” he continued. “First and foremost, we wanted to win our conference outright.”
Keeping their starters healthy and able to play has been a challenge for the Bulldogs, but scoring has not. Injuries and COVID-related absences have caused Duby to alter his starting lineup regularly as the Bulldogs are hitting 70 points-plus per game.
Senior forward Conner Simmer is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18. Another senior, Logan Wienclaw, chips in 12 from his center spot, while juniors Carter Simmer and Caleb Linna contribute 11.5 and 10 points per game, respectively.
“We have several kids who have worked hard for several years,” Duby said. “There is no one person you can shut down and expect to beat us.”
The Bulldogs, who also get almost eight points per game from junior Ashton Simerson, rack up 17 assists per games. Three-point shooting is also a strength. The Bulldogs got into the Michigan record books with 15 3-pointers on 32 tries in Thursday’s 73-45 win over Baldwin.
The Baldwin win helped erase memories of a big loss last year. Things are different as Mesick in nearing the halfway point of this home-and-home conference schedule. The Bulldogs have played the majority of their league games on the road and will be playing host a lot while enjoying their ride in the driver’s seat.
“Baldwin was the team that stopped us from an outright conference championship last year,” Duby said. “Winning in Baldwin and getting through the mental hurdle is exciting for us.”
High scoring has been a major contributor to the Bulldogs’ success to date, along with many of the current varsity having played together since middle school – the same time Duby took over the program.
Film study is another significant factor. Based on the review, the Bulldogs prepare to use a variety of presses and half court defenses from their repertoire.
“We have eight different defenses we can play depending on what the film said,” Duby pointed out. “We do what the films tells us.”
“Luckily I have had these boys since they were in sixth and seventh grade, and we played a lot of summer basketball,” he continued. “They are a high-IQ group.”
The road to success started years ago with a meeting Duby held with the parents of today’s Bulldogs.
“I knew the task of getting to this point was going to be a long one,” Duby said. “Right away, we started having them travel.
“We’d take a junior high, JV and varsity team and go down to Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Lansing … Flint and be downstate in summer about four weekends,” he continued. “We would take our whole program together and caravan and play basketball.”
Duby credits the fast start to his coaching staff, which includes Joe Lewis, Derek Linna, Nathan Hall and Jason McCree.
“My JV coach, Joe Lewis, has been with me since day one,” Duby said. “Over the years we’ve absorbed some dads to the staff.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Mesick boys basketball coach Kyle Duby addresses his team during a game this season. (Middle) Logan Wienclaw (20) goes up for a jump ball. (Photos by Daniel Cochrane.)
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.)