Tri-Captains Pace Striving Spring Lake

February 8, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Things are looking up for the Spring Lake boys basketball team.

The Lakers have raised the bar in recent years, making their mark on the statewide level with two appearances in the MHSAA Class B Quarterfinals over the last three seasons.

This winter, led by a trio of tall, versatile and extremely intelligent captains in Sam Johnson (6-foot-8), Griffin Lorimer (6-4) and Jack VanWingen (6-2), Spring Lake has stepped up its schedule and its game in its quest to get back to the quarters – and perhaps further.

“When it gets to tournament time, it comes down to playing your best basketball of the year and making a run,” said Johnson, who scored a game-high 16 points on Wednesday as Spring Lake doubled up host Sparta, 50-25, for an Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue win.

“A big key in March is experience and leadership, and we definitely have plenty of that.”

Spring Lake (12-3, 6-2 in the O-K Blue), which hosts Allendale on Friday night in another conference game, showed it was going to be a force to be reckoned with early this year when it posted back-to-back tight wins over a pair of bigger schools in Rockford (48-46) and rival Grand Haven (69-66 in double overtime).

Bill Core, in his 17th year as Spring Lake’s head coach, said that in addition to good height on the front line, this may also be the smartest team he’s ever coached. Core said that intelligence helps this team make adjustments on the fly and smart decisions when the game is on the line.

“Those three captains are all 4.0 kids, and they’re great role models,” said Core, who is assisted by Randy White. “They have high basketball IQs, and I trust them to make decisions and figure things out.”

Johnson is the player who draws the most attention from opposing teams at 6-8, with the ability to post up and step out and knock down mid-range jump shots.

Johnson, who plans to play basketball next year at Claremont McKenna College in California, leads the Lakers with 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. And don’t try to hack him and send him to the free-throw line. Johnson is shooting a team-best 80 percent on free throws.

The most versatile of the three captains is Lorimer, who is hard to miss with his curly blonde hair and red shoes. He creates matchup problems with his inside-outside game, and currently averages 10 points and seven rebounds per contest.

Johnson and Lorimer are a 1-2 punch up front that most teams can’t match.

“We know one of the strengths of this team is that we’re deep in the post, and that makes it hard for teams to just focus on one guy,” explained Lorimer. “It’s good to have that balance. Plus, we’ve played together so long that we just know where the other guys are going to be.”

Lorimer’s versatility was perhaps best displayed last year at team camp in Rockford, where he was assigned to guard one of the state’s best big men in 6-9 Xavier Tillman (now at Michigan State) one day, then came back the next day and had to check standout guard Matt Beachler (now at Central Michigan).

But the most important of Spring Lake’s three captains might be VanWingen, a slasher who is the team’s best at breaking down defenses. VanWingen is adept at finding Johnson and Lorimer inside as well as kicking the ball back out to the arc to shooters Ben Arteaga, Kyle Wiersma and sophomore Cayden Ball.

“I think we’re a very well-balanced team,” said VanWingen, the top returning scorer off last year’s who is currently averaging 11.2 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. “Our big guys get a lot of attention, but we also have guards who can shoot it. It’s important that we trust each other and know that everyone is going to do their job.”

Spring Lake’s senior trio has been too much for almost everybody to handle, with the main exception being conference rival and possible Regional opponent Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which is ranked No. 6 in Class B.

The two teams met on Jan. 5 at Spring Lake in a much-anticipated showdown, but the Cougars swarmed the hosts in a lopsided 80-39 victory. The Lakers were much more competitive when the two teams played last week in Grand Rapids, but still lost, 59-40.

“We improved by 22 points the second game, and if we improve by another 22 points in the next game, we’ll win by three,” quipped Core, who knows his team will be a huge underdog if it’s fortunate enough to win the District it is hosting next month and possibly get another shot at GRCC in the Class B Regional opener at Grand Rapids West Catholic.

The Lakers can gain confidence by looking back to last year, when they lost to GR Catholic twice during the regular season, then stunned the Cougars in the Regional championship game. That win put Spring Lake in the Quarterfinals for the second time in three years, after it made a surprise run to the school’s first-ever boys basketball Quarterfinals appearance in 2015.

Lorimer believes this year’s team has the potential to make it three Quarterfinal appearances in four years.

“I really do think we have another level we haven’t reached yet,” said Lorimer, who plans to play next year at Trine University in Angola, Ind. “We may have for short stretches, but we haven’t strung it together for a whole game. That’s what we’re working on.”

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 with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Spring Lake senior Griffin Lorimer battles along the baseline in a victory earlier this season against Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Middle) Spring Lake senior Jack VanWingen glides in for a bucket in a victory over Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Below) Spring Lake senior Sam Johnson goes up for a shot during the Lakers' thrilling double-overtime win over neighboring rival Grand Haven earlier this season. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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

By Steve Vedder
Special for

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.)