Steady Seniors Pace Zeeland East's Special Season

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 26, 2021

Trip Riemersma couldn’t have scripted a better way to score the 1,000th point of his four-year varsity career.

The Zeeland East senior stole a pass during the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Division 1 District runaway against visiting archrival Zeeland West, then put the exclamation point on it with a breakaway dunk for points 999 and 1,000.

Right on cue, the small but enthusiastic student section at “The Coop” started chanting: “1,000! 1,000!”

“It’s very special, one of many things this season,” said Riemersma, who finished with 20 points in the undefeated Chix’ 61-27 victory to start postseason play. “I couldn’t have reached this milestone without my teammates. They get me the ball when I’m open, and I just convert.”

It was actually just the latest chapter in a storybook season for Zeeland East (17-0), which completed the school’s first undefeated regular season since 2009 – the year that Korey Van Dussen and Nate Snuggerad led the Chix all the way to the Class B championship game, where they lost to Flint Powers Catholic.

This year’s group has similar aspirations after winning the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green title and being ranked No. 9 in Division 1 in the final Associated Press state poll, led by five senior starters who will all be playing college sports.

Riemersma, the 6-foot-3 son of former University of Michigan football standout Jay Riemersma, gets much of the attention with his ability to shoot, drive and play inside. He averages 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and will play basketball next year at Saginaw Valley State.

Zeeland East boys basketball 2The inside work on both ends of the court is done by the Claerbaut twins – Nate (6-11), a game-changer defensively who averages 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks; and Brandon (6-5), who scores better than 10 points per game, along with averaging four rebounds and 3.4 assists. Many of those assists are to his brother as the pair possess a unique chemistry on the court, which they will take to Ferris State next year.

The point guard is 5-10 senior Adam Cassel, a Hope College football recruit, who brings the girth to a starting five known for its height and length.

Rounding out the Chix starting lineup is 6-2 senior Ethan Houghtaling – a throwback, three-sport athlete, who is the quarterback of the football team and the star pitcher on the baseball team (and committed to Western Michigan for the latter), but has no problem humbling himself and filling a critical supporting role on the hardcourt.

“Before almost every game, Ethan asks me: ‘Coach, what do you need me to do?’” said Zeeland East coach Jeff Carlson, a former standout himself at Holland and later Hope College. “I’m really blessed with this group. They are all phenomenal athletes, they are all competitors and they are all unselfish. That sure makes coaching a lot easier.”

Next up for the Chix is a Saturday District Final matchup with neighboring rival Holland West Ottawa, which went to overtime to down Hudsonville in Thursday’s opening game. Tipoff is 7 p.m.

Houghtaling is normally well into baseball season by now, but he has no problem at this point with leaving the bat and glove in the garage for a couple more games and, who knows, maybe a couple more weeks.

“This is the season we have been working toward since seventh grade,” explained Houghtaling, who had his typical workmanlike performance Thursday with six points and eight rebounds. “Even though we are unbeaten, our mentality is to go out every game and prove we are for real and to keep adding to it.”

He is savoring every moment, as his last three seasons have all been cut short or eliminated by COVID-19.

Zeeland East boys basketball 3The Chix finished 16-6 last basketball season, which was truncated during District week by the pandemic. Houghtaling’s junior baseball season never got started, and his senior football season ended abruptly with a 4-2 record when East was forced to forfeit its Division 3 District opener due to coronavirus cases in the program.

“I am so happy for these kids, that they have been able to have the type of season they’ve had,” said Carlson, who is in his second year as the Chix head coach and is assisted by Tyler Bartolacci. “They deserve it.”

Now the question becomes: How far can they go?

The Chix certainly put on a clinic Thursday, against a talented Zeeland West team which gave East its closest game of the season, a 44-39 victory back on Feb. 23. This time, the Chix put on the clamps defensively and got out and ran to a 19-3 lead after one quarter, extended it to 31-9 by halftime and cruised from there.

The only thing missing was the usual standing-room-only crowd of close to 3,000 fans when the two Zeeland schools meet. Carlson would love to have those crowds, but knows this team doesn’t need that to get pumped up.

The Chix are so focused and serious that Carlson often starts practices with a game of tag to try and lighten the mood.

The problem is, as Riemersma explains, even tag soon becomes ultra-competitive with this year’s team.

“It’s team-bonding stuff and supposed to be a little bit of fun before we get focused in on basketball,” said Riemersma. “But we all want to win everything we do, so it usually gets pretty intense, but I guess that’s a good thing.”

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) Zeeland East 6-10 senior center Nate Claerbaut, right, goes up for a clean blocked shot, while his twin brother, 6-5 senior forward Brandon Claerbaut, applies pressure from the other side during a game last season. (Middle) Zeeland East senior Trip Riemersma poses with the commemorative basketball he was presented after scoring his 1,000th varsity point in Thursday's 61-27 Division 1 District Semifinal win over rival Zeeland West. (Below) Zeeland East senior guard Ethan Houghtaling sizes up a 3-point shot. Houghtaling, who played quarterback in football for the Chix, is a three-sport athlete who will play baseball next year at Western Michigan University. (Top and below photos contributed; middle photo by Tom Kendra.)

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.)