Promise Kept, Dream Continues for Morenci

March 26, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Every summer, Morenci boys basketball coach Jim Bauer comes up with a catchy, aspiration-filled slogan for his kids basketball camp T-shirts.

Pathway to Breslin. Small Town, Big Time. “Breslin is on every shirt,” Bauer said, “but deep down, you’re thinking, am I ever going to get there?” 

Three years ago, a freshman named Austin Sandusky made a promise he and his teammates kept Thursday. And now they’ve got an opportunity to carry it one step farther.

Morenci will play for its first MHSAA championship after handing Waterford Our Lady its only loss this season, 53-52, in a Class D Semifinal on Michigan State University's home floor.  

“We started in fourth grade, and it seemed every tournament we’d be in the championship game,” Sandusky said. “Every year our coaches told us it wasn’t for this championship game, it’s for when we’re juniors and seniors on the varsity level trying to get to the (MHSAA) championship game. We knew they wouldn’t say that unless they truly believed it.”

Morenci (25-2), unranked when this tournament began, will face top-ranked Powers North Central in the 10 a.m. Final on Saturday. 

Bauer has coached four 20-win teams over two tenures measuring a decade at Morenci, with this year’s his second straight to reach that milestone win total. But he’s also had three teams finish with sub-.500 records, including only two seasons ago.

No Morenci player measures taller than 6-foot-3, and senior guard Alex Thomas said he and his teammates always knew they’d be a little smaller than their opponents. But the Bulldogs returned four starters after falling to eventual MHSAA runner-up Adrian Lenawee Christian in last season's District Final. Two weeks ago, Morenci won its first Regional title since 1954, and the Semifinal was the first in the program’s history.

But the run nearly ended there – even though the Bulldogs led Thursday for all but 3 minutes and 55 seconds.

They were ahead from the middle of the first quarter until Our Lady senior Nick Robak hit a go-ahead jumper to make the score 38-37 with 7:08 to play. 

Morenci took the lead back and pushed it to six points three times, including with 14 seconds remaining. But Robak hit another big shot – a 3 pointer to cut the deficit in half with eight seconds left – and after a steal by junior teammate Adam Kline was fouled on another 3-point attempt with less than a second to go in regulation.

Robak was faced with making all three free throws to tie the score. An 86-percent free-throw shooter, he connected on the first two – but missed the third. 

“Layups and free throws, they matter. And they probably came back to bite us in the end,” said Our Lady coach Paul Robak, also Nick’s uncle. “Thirty-two minutes were played, and we lost our opportunity a long time before (the final second). We would’ve never gotten here without the efforts of Nick. … There are lessons in everything, and although we came here to win and not get a lesson, I hope we can find that lesson down the road.”

Robak scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to go with four assists. Kline added 12 points and five assists and junior forward Clay Senerius had nine points, 11 rebounds and four assists. But the team made only 6 of 14 free throw attempts and missed some shots from the lane that usually have fallen. 

The Semifinal was Our Lady's first since 1993. The Lakers finished with a school record for wins in ending 25-1.

Thomas had 19 points and seven rebounds as the only player in double figures for Morenci. Sandusky added seven points, five rebounds and five assists as all five Bulldogs starters scored at least six points, and eight players saw at least nine minutes of action. 

They didn’t play an opponent this season that received votes in the final Associated Press rankings. But they did avenge both of their losses and had won all of their tournament games by at least 12 points before Thursday’s nail-biter made what might’ve seemed like an unrealistic Sandusky dream continue to come true.

“You never discourage a kid from having a dream,” Bauer said. “You go along with it and hope for it. 

“That’s what I wanted too.” 

Click for the full box score and video from the postgame press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Morenci players celebrate their first MHSAA championship game berth. (Middle) Waterford Our Lady’s Nick Robak gets past a defender for an open look Thursday.  

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.)