HARTLAND — When asked how many seasons he’s coached basketball, Don Palmer always is up front.
The reactions are variations of shock and awe.
“How many seasons? 104?” a reporter asked after his most recent victory March 8.
“Seventy,” Palmer said.
“Seventy?” said the reporter, not suspecting a number that high.
Told the same number, Hartland senior Graysen Cockerham could only giggle in disbelief.
“That’s crazy,” sophomore Whitney Sollom said, joining in the laughter.
Seventy is quite a number at first blush, considering Palmer is only 67 years old.
But he coached boys and girls at Milford for 29 years and has been a head coach for 41 overall, the last nine at Hartland.
He has won 935 games, 588 with the girls, which has enabled him to become the winningest overall basketball coach in state history. The old record, 922, is believed to have been held by Ed Mehlberg of Auburn Hills Oakland Christian. As it turns out, both Palmer and Mehlberg were inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame last September.
Palmer has coached countless players and their children as well as against coaches and their sons. On this year’s team he coached Sollom, whose mother, Dianne Hall, played against Milford while at Walled Lake Western; and Kamryn Gerecke, whose mother, Lori Montante, is Milford’s second-leading scorer all-time.
He’s won with and without talent on offense. And on defense, opposing coaches have learned to prepare in advance.
“I learned to do some prep work for those games,” former Brighton coach Jason Piepho said. “We would mix in different defenses in practice throughout the year. You couldn’t prepare for him for just two games a year, because you didn’t know what he would throw at you.”
Piepho learned that first-hand while playing for Howell a quarter-century ago.
“I remember the first time I played against him,” he said, laughing. “I was Howell’s point guard, and they threw a box-and-one against me. It was frustrating. It was the first time I’d seen that defense.”
Coach to the core
His Hartland girls finished 20-6 this winter, advancing to last week’s Class A Quarterfinals before falling to Wayne Memorial.
Palmer started coaching at Milford in 1974, the year he graduated from Michigan State University.
“I coached football a couple of years, freshman football,” he said. “I liked it, but I always wanted to be a head coach, so when the (girls basketball) job became open at Milford, I applied and got it. About a year later, the boys job came open and I applied and got it.”
For the next 29 years, until girls basketball moved to the winter beginning with the 2007-08 season, Palmer coached both sports.
“It became a lifestyle,” he said. “We had girls in the fall and boys in the winter. We would do our boys (offseason) stuff in June and the girls stuff in July, and it just kept going.
“When they switched the seasons, I had to make a choice,” he said. “I chose girls because that’s where I started. It gave me a chance to be a coach at a young age. So that’s where my allegiance was. As I grow older, I could never do two seasons back-to-back.”
Palmer’s Milford teams of both genders were known for defense and an offense that could be described as patient or painfully slow, depending on one’s perspective.
“When we started out with the boys, it was a program that struggled mightily,” he recalled. “We would do whatever we had to do to stay in games, whether that be ball control or setting the tempo.”
“I think the biggest thing that Don has done is that he adapts how he plays the game to his talent,” said Lee Piepho, who coached girls basketball at Howell. “Sometimes you don’t like what he does in terms of his strategy, but his idea is, ‘I’m going to play whatever strategy on the court to help my team win the game. If that’s standing out there and holding the ball, putting my arm under it and go into the quarter tied at zero or leading 2-0, I’m going to do that.’”
Last season, Palmer adjusted to a team than loved to run up and down the floor and was good at it.
“I don’t mind the running game,” he said. “You weren’t holding (that team) back. You were doing a disservice if you did.”
Both Piepho and Palmer are fiery competitors, but Palmer once made Piepho laugh during a game.
“One night we were playing Milford with Sara (Piepho’s daughter, a point guard at Howell),” Lee recalled. “I got a little upset with Sara and I pulled her out of the game and was talking to her and Don hollered over, ‘If you don’t want her, I’ll take her.’
“We had her graduation party and invited Don over, and he brings Sara a pair of Milford practice shorts.”
Palmer, at 6-foot with a shaved head and glasses, is an intimidating presence on the sideline during games. HIs players soon learn to look beyond that persona.
“I think most people, from a distance, see him and think he’s crazy,” Cockerham said. “But as players, we know he cares and wants us to be the best we can be. We appreciate it, because we need a coach to push us, and that’s exactly what he does. He expects nothing but the best for us, and that’s the way he gets it out of us.”
Mike McKay coached under Palmer at Milford for many years. He now is the varsity coach at Grand Blanc.
“He can be intense,” he said. “But off the court he does things he doesn’t want recognition for but does them for the betterment of his players. He takes care of the whole program.”
New challenge, no let up
After 32 seasons coaching at the only place he’d ever worked, Palmer’s contract was not renewed at Milford after the 2008-09 season.
He wasn’t out of coaching for long.
“When I left Milford, the Hartland coach, Brian Ives, had to leave because of work obligations,” Palmer said.
After years of struggling, the Hartland program was on the rise.
“We could beat them at the varsity level, but just barely,” Palmer said of coaching against the Eagles near the end of his Milford tenure. “The lower levels were just getting murdered. So we could see it coming.
“I told my coaches, ‘There’s going to be no excuse for not winning. None,’” Palmer recalled.
The Eagles have thrived under Palmer. In his nine seasons, his teams have won 20 or more games three times and got to the Quarterfinals twice over the last four seasons. He won 62 percent of his games at Milford. In nine seasons at Hartland, the Eagles have won 78 percent of their games.
“There just doesn’t seem to be any let up for a while,” he said, referring to the talent stream at Hartland. Indeed, five sophomores and two freshmen saw extensive time during the postseason for the Eagles this year.
But, he jokes, some old habits die hard.
“Even now, frequently, I’ll still write ‘Milford’ in a scorebook or something like that,” Palmer said. “I’m much, much better now. I’m a Hartland guy and a Livingston County guy, but it took a while. I coached 61 seasons over there. That’ll always be my school, but I do think that getting hired at Hartland was the best thing that happened to me under those circumstances. It’s been fabulous.”
Palmer’s coaching tree is expansive, and his list of admirers much more so.
“When we were winning and making runs in the state tournament, he went to all of our games,” Jason Piepho said. “He was always a coach you could call and talk to about things in your program. He’s an open book, willing to help and mentor. He’s what you want in a high school coach.”
“There are a lot of challenges that come with coaching,” McKay said. “A lot of people don’t like hearing the truth, and it’s hard to tell them. But he’s always honest and up front with his players and staff. He’s a first-class person and coach, and I admire him and try to emulate what he does.”
McKay just finished his second season with the Bobcats, and they beat Hartland in December in a key victory.
“I didn’t like losing, but losing to him took the sting away a little bit because he was so happy and it was a big win for his program,” Palmer said. “So that helped. I’m proud of him, and he’s turning it around and he’ll be fine.”
Told this, McKay replied, “That tells you all you need to know about Don. He’s a class act. It was a great win for our program, but bittersweet for me. I look on him as a second father, and you always want to please your father. I know how badly he wanted to win and compete and how much I do, too.”
Howell girls coach Tim Olszewski had previously coached the Howell boys against Palmer’s Milford teams. In his last regular-season game as Howell coach, Olszewski’s Highlanders beat Milford 97-86.
“He was so mad at me,” Olszewski said, laughing. “He and his players were all red-faced, for different reasons.
“He’s a great coach and I love listening to him talk and pick his brain for things. He’s very well deserving of the record. Hopefully he’ll be around a lot longer.”
A lot has changed since Palmer’s first season as a varsity coach with the Milford girls back in 1977.
“As we kind of march on in time, you’ve got people playing 60 games in the summer,” Palmer said. “I think if we get in 30 games, that’s plenty. I do think this: More than ever, you’ve got to let kids be kids a little bit. We’re going to that specialization stuff, and I don’t think that’s great.
“People love to go to the next level, but it becomes a job,” he continued. “So this is the time to be a kid. This is the time to enjoy sports. Basketball is always my love, but I enjoyed football. I enjoyed track, and I think kids, well, it’s just how it is. There are outside forces. Everyone says they have a college athlete, and the percentages say they don’t.”
Specialization, he adds, not only cuts into individual opportunities to learn, but also hurts teams that could use those athletes.
“Unless you have a gigantic high school, all of your athletes have got to play a couple of sports, or you don’t survive,” he said.
As he gets older, Palmer sees the end of his career approaching, although he’s not there yet.
“I just go year-by-year,” he said. “Part of the compromise my wife and I made for me to continue (coaching) is that we’re going to travel a little bit more. She likes that, and so we’ve got some plans. After the season is over, we’re going to take a trip to Dallas. I’m a Kennedy assassination buff, and she just wants to see Dallas.”
Asked if he will be back next year, he nods his head.
“Right now, that’s the feeling, I guess,” he said. “If everything works out, I would like to at least finish with Whitney. That’s a gift, to coach a kid like that. But eventually you have to make a decision. Right now, my energy is up, but when the season is over, I go into a meltdown for a month where I don’t do much. Just don’t have the energy. It takes more and more out of you every day.
“But it’s still fun when you’re in the heat of battle. It’s still fun.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Hartland girls basketball coach Don Palmer stands for the national anthem before a game at Howell last month. (Middle) Palmer, also during the game against the Highlanders. (Below) Palmer talks with his team during a timeout. (Photos by Tim Robinson.)
Hemlock and Rockford's drives to their first Girls Basketball Finals championships in March were paced in part by some of the strongest 3-point shooting in MHSAA history.
The Division 1 title-winning Rams connected on 243 3-pointers – third-most all-time – over 29 games in tying the single-season wins record while finishing 28-1. Grace Lyons, a senior this fall, made the single-season individual list with 70 3-pointers.
The Huskies won in Division 3 having connected on 229 3-pointers over 29 games, seventh-most in MHSAA history, on 678 attempts, which ranks 12th on that list. Chloe Watson made the single-season list with 75 3-pointers, and Regan Finkbeiner did as well connecting on 67.
Watson also made the career 3-pointers list with 224 and Finkbeiner with 194, and 2017 Hemlock graduate Samantha Krauss was added for 65 3-pointers as a junior in 2015-16 and 188 for her career. Additionally, past Hemlock standout Karli Herrington was added for her 317 rebounds in 2012-13, and Peyton Apsey was added for 144 steals in 2010-11.
Watson is continuing her career at Mid-Michigan College, and Finkbeiner is playing softball at Madonna. Herrington went on to play at Central Michigan and Northwood, Krauss played at Ferris State and Apsey played at Oakland.
Read on for more recent record book additions for girls basketball:
Hudsonville’s Maddie Petroelje joined the list of top 3-point shooters in MHSAA history as a junior in 2021-22, when she connected on 70 (in just 147 attempts) to make the single-season list. She graduated this spring 16th on the career list as well with 226 3-pointers in 512 attempts over 92 games and four seasons. She is continuing at Loyola (Ill.).
Byron Center’s Avery Zeinstra also finished her career among those top 3-point shooters. She also made the single-season list with 70 in 147 attempts as a freshman in 2018-19, and she capped her career in 2021-22 with 206 3-pointers (tied for 20th-most) in 502 attempts over four seasons and 80 career games. She is continuing at Grand Valley State.
Hannah Thompson was best known for her soccer scoring at Schoolcraft. But she’s made a second MHSAA record book for her 15 steals in a Jan. 28, 2022, basketball win over Galesburg-Augusta. She’s continuing her soccer career at Eastern Michigan.
Baraga’s run to the Division 4 Semifinals in 2022 received big boosts from Corina Jahfetson’s 3-point shooting and Reide Osterman’s defense. Jahfetson was added to the record book with 66 3-pointers over 25 games, including nine in a game against Carney Nadeau – when Baraga as a team made the record book with 14 3-pointers total. Osterman made the record book with 153 steals. Jahfetson graduated this spring, and Osterman is playing at Northern Michigan.
Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy’s Audrey Mileski had one of the busiest games at the free throw line in MHSAA history Dec. 14, 2021. She made 23 free throws – third-most in a single game – against Wyoming Kelloggsville. Mileski graduated this spring.
Sophia Bussell had set Monroe’s single-game 3-pointers record of eight as a freshman two seasons ago, and she bettered it last Dec. 13 by tying for the 10th-most in MHSAA history. She made 10-pointers including the game-winner of a 58-56 victory over Ypsilanti Lincoln. A little less than 10 months earlier, Adrian Lenawee Christian then-senior Kylie Summer also made 10, on 17 attempts, during a 57-34 win over Lansing Christian on Feb. 24, 2022.
Lydia Meredith enjoyed a memorable senior season for Portland St. Patrick in 2021-22, finishing her four-year varsity career with 453 steals over just 80 games. She also was added for drilling 17 free throws in 22 attempts against Fowler. She plays now at Saginaw Valley State.
Gabby Piepho got off to a fast start at Howell as a freshman last season, and at a record-setting pace at the free-throw line. She made 93 of 107 attempts over 25 games, for an .869 percentage that made the single-season list. That included a string of 47 straight free throws that ranks as the second-longest in MHSAA history. As a team, Howell tied for sixth all-time with 301 free throws over 25 games, on 439 attempts.
Kent City’s Lexie Bowers reached the single-season 3-pointers list for the second time last season, connecting on 72 of 233 tries over 26 games (after making 77 as a junior), and finished her four-season varsity career 16th on that 3-pointers list with 225 in 693 attempts over 99 games. She’s continuing her career at Northwood. Kent City as a team also reached the single-season 3-pointers made and attempted lists again, ranking fourth with 753 attempts and tying for eighth all-time by connecting on 202.
Posen then-junior Faith Cousins earned a par of record book entries during 2021-22 for assists. Her 16 in a District Final win on March 4, 2022, remain tied for fifth-most in one game, and she finished with 165 over 22 games for the season. She’s set to begin her softball career at Alma College.
Niles Brandywine went over 20 wins again this past season, finishing 21-3, and again the 3-pointer was a key tool in that pursuit. Brandywine made the record book with back-to-back games of 13 3-pointers to close the regular season, and finished with 175 3-pointers in 592 attempts over 23 games (with one won by forfeit).
Greenville’s Megan Leslie averaged more than two 3-pointers a game during her four-season varsity career, making the record list with 153 total over 76 games through graduation this spring. She’s continuing her career at Alma College.
Successful 3-point shooting played a major role in Saline finishing 21-4 with league and District titles last winter. The Hornets attempted 704 3-pointers – ninth-most all-time for one season – and connected on 191, which is 12th on that list. They made a season-high 14 against Ypsilanti Lincoln on Nov. 29 to make the single-game list.
Marcellus senior Brooklyn VanTilburg enjoyed a big finish to her high school career last winter, making the record book with 16 blocked shots in a game against Centreville and 135 blocks total for the season. She’ll continue at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Kennedy Gustafson made headlines last winter as a sophomore and earned a pair of record listings for her rebounding. She grabbed 26 in a March 3 District Final win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, and she finished with 376 rebounds over 25 games for the season.
PHOTO Hemlock's Regan Finkbeiner, left, follows through on a free throw attempt during last season's Division 3 Final, and Rockford's Grace Lyons launches the game-winning 3-pointer in Division 1.