By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal
Now that this year’s basketball season has begun to heat up, but certainly not the weather, I once again will look back in time and rekindle another favorite Moyes Memory.
Success on the hardwoods in our immediate area has been dominated for more than a half century by teams from Muskegon Heights and Western Michigan Christian.
Not since Muskegon St. Mary’s, and eventual Class D Champ Muskegon St. Joseph in 1953, has another team outside those two perennial powers made it to the championship game at the basketball state finals.
It has always been my biased opinion that the Heights team of 1957 was the crème of the crop in our storied high school basketball annals, but the following year would be time for the Western Michigan Christian Warriors to shine in the spotlight.
The 1950s was an era thankfully void of the many ‘basketball academies’ that have unfortunately proliferated today’s modern era. It was an age where the word “recruiting” was limited only to future college prospects, and high school teams were comprised of players from their own city or parish.
However, the 1958 Western Michigan Christian team took it to the extreme! Not only did a number of players from that Warrior team live in the same city, but also they lived in the same neighborhood!
Only starting forward Larry Weesies, who toiled on his family’s celery farm near Montague, lived outside this tight little area.
And all except Weesies had something else in common — they were all former Muskegon Chronicle paperboys, something that this former newsboy could also relate to during our schoolboy years.
This was confirmed with a recent conversation I had with Warrior superstar Ken VanDyke.
“Four of the five starters all had paper routes and I think they all had their routes even during the season, at least I did,” recalled VanDyke. “And I believe Jerry Meyering, who played with us until he graduated in January, was also a paperboy.”
The 1958 team had the perfect recipe for success, five solid starters and a solid backup to form a rotation that was coached to perfection by a coaching legend.
The Warriors had an unselfish point guard in Eddie Heethuis, who cared less about scoring, but only about winning. A guard in Lee Vanderstelt who could light them up when the opponents focus was in stopping the big forward Wall down low.
They had a team loaded with size, something that has always seemingly been a tradition at WMC.
The Warriors utilized a front line that included three juniors, Norm Vanderwall, Larry Weesies, and super sixth man Dave Mulder. And then they had the go to, their senior leader in the middle; 6-foot-6 center Ken VanDyke.
Although VanDyke was the leading scorer on this pioneer team, five of their first six players took a turn during the season as a game leading scorer.
And perhaps most importantly, they had that leadership on the sidelines that would mold the first of nine state championship teams from WMC in Coach Elmer Walcott.
While earlier teams from WMC would have to scramble to find a gym to practice, as well as a place to play their home games, the opening of the 1957-58 season saw the Warriors playing in a gym that they could finally call their own.
Always a zealous basketball nut, I well remember going to the dedication of that gym in 1957, not for a scheduled game, but a scrimmage among the varsity players.
After opening their season on the road with easy victories over Hopkins and Montague, the Warriors played their first-ever actual game at the East Muskegon gym on December 17, 1957.
With the WMC pep band pumping up the fans’ enthusiasm from the stage at the end of the court, the packed crowd in attendance was treated to a Warrior 65-49 trouncing of University Christian, with Warrior great Ken Van Dyke pouring in 29 points.
However, when I quizzed Van Dyke for what he most remembered about the gym opening, he modestly never brought up his high scoring output.
“I remember we had a glitch during that first home game as the new scoreboard broke down,” recalled a laughing VanDyke. “They brought out a chalk board and they kept score with chalk and an eraser, just like I remember from year’s past when our high school used to play their games at the Nelson Junior High gym.”
I was always envious of the Warriors while in high school during this period of time as WMC was permitted to play an 18-game schedule, while schools that had a football team were permitted to play but 15 contests.
WMC won 15 of those 18 games, with one of those losses coming at the hands of Muskegon Catholic, 47-45 in overtime. The other two setbacks came against a Holland Christian team that was clearly the best team my Norsemen ever faced that same season.
The Maroons ran roughshod over my NM team at the district finals in 1958 and I thought they were a cinch to win it all in Class B. However, Holland Christian lost in the quarterfinals that year to the eventual state champs from East Lansing, coached by future MSU head coach Gus Ganakas.
The highlight of the regular season for WMC clearly had to be the 44-43 victory over the defending Class C state champions from Lakeview. Lakeview came into the late February contest at the home of the Warriors rated the No. 1 team in Class C.
This contest clearly had to signal to the Warrior Nation that this was perhaps going to be a special year. And it was!
The Warriors handed Lakeview its first loss of the season, 44-43, giving the locals a huge momentum surge heading into the upcoming tournament.
“We first played Lakeview my junior season in Lakeview, the year they won the state championship,” VanDyke remembered. “They had that little cracker box gym that had a track around the top.
“When you were in the corner, you couldn’t take the corner shot because you would hit the track,” chuckled Van Dyke.
The Warriors ended their regular season on an eight-game winning streak heading into the district tournament at the sparkling Whitehall gymnasium, opened just the preceding season.
It would be at the district tournament where the Warriors would receive their toughest competition during their nine-game run to the state title.
The Warriors were far from the top of their game at the Whitehall district, beginning with their opener with Hart, where Christian led the Pirates by a slim three points at halftime before eventually pulling away in the second half in the 57-42 victory.
Montague can always boast that they came the closest to denying the Warriors a state championship in the district semi-finals, before bowing out six-point losers in the low scoring 47-41 WMC victory.
After being blown out by the Warriors twice during the regular season, the host Vikings made their third tilt much more interesting. Whitehall trailed Coach Walcott’s squad by only five points midway through the final period before falling by eight points.
The Warriors would find Central Michigan Universities Rose Fieldhouse much more to their liking the following week at the Class C Regional.
WMC crushed their first two opponents, Edmore and Alcona, in a regional that would showcase the talents of the Warriors star senior center VanDyke.
The opening 64-36 walloping of nearby Edmore saw Van Dyke play the role of a playmaker and rebounder. Although scoring a modest 10 points, Van Dyke was content to feed his teammates for easy tallies, with Lee Vanderstelt and Larry Weesies combining for 39 of the Warrior points.
After blasting Alcona 67-48, with VanDyke and Norm Vanderwall each scoring 19 points, the table was set for the Warriors to win their first-ever regional title.
To capture the regional championship, WMC would be playing their fourth opponent in the tournament from the West Michigan Conference, 1958 league champion Reed City.
The Warriors took the suspense out of this game early by bolting out to a commanding first half lead, a margin that eventually reached 25 points before Coach Walcott mercifully emptied his bench against the overmatched Reed City five.
Van Dyke was sensational with a game high 25 points and a multitude of rebounds. Among those in attendance at the packed fieldhouse was CMU Coach Ted Kjolhede.
When asked if his performance at CMU might have helped him procure a scholarship to play at Central, VanDyke simply said: “It could have. We also played there at the regional in our junior year and I played well.”
The future CMU star did not have fond memories of the Warriors defeat at the hands of Remus back in 1957.
“I think I scored more baskets than their whole team, but we were not at all happy with the officiating. I was the only starter who did not foul out,” replied the hard-nosed WMC player from yesteryear that was never timid about mixing it up with the opposing team.
Christian would next square off much closer to home at the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium against Holt, which eliminated the 1957 state champs from Lakeview to earn a trip to the quarterfinals.
The Warriors disposed of Holt in GR with a convincing 46-35 win. It was Holt which six years earlier denied WMC a shot at copping their first regional championship when they eliminated Walcott’s 1952 squad 50-42.
Interesting enough, the semifinal game played at the Lansing Civic Auditorium was one that would garner national attention.
Interest in this game was not focused on the basketball talents of our local lads from Muskegon, but was diverted to the daffy followers of their next opponent from Harbor Springs.
During their 1958 tournament run, an entirely new fad was initiated by many of the fans from Harbor Springs, a craze that has become much more commonplace today.
Many of the gals from the student body, as well as a number of Harbor Springs teachers, demonstrated their support for their beloved basketball team by dying their hair in the school’s colors of orange and black.
Newspapers throughout the state, and even the entire nation, featured photos of these enthusiasts, who likely set the stage for future student sections such as the Cameron Crazies at Duke or, a little closer to home, the students that make up the wild Izzone at MSU.
The Warriors put a halt to the dream season for the sentimental favorites from Harbor Springs, by defeating the Rams from Northwestern Michigan 50-43 at the semifinals at the Lansing Civic Center.
“I remember that being a wild game,” said VanDyke. “I believe we were behind at the end of the third quarter and we had to rally to pull that game out. We were really cold and Dave Mulder came off the bench, as well as Dale Poel, to bail us out with some big baskets in the final quarter.”
There would be no fourth-quarter rally needed at the Class C state championship game the following afternoon against Highland Park Saint Benedict, played in front of another sell out crowd of more than 12,000 fans at MSU’s Jenison Fieldhouse.
VanDyke put it bluntly when he quickly stated: “Hey, we killed them. I think at halftime we were up 33-14 before we had a second half letdown and scored only 12 points.”
The 45-35 victory would turn out to be the first of an amazing nine state titles over the next half-century for WMC.
To capture their first of their state titles back in 1958, the Warriors needed to win nine pressure-packed tournament games in a row, one more than the maximum amount needed to win a championship with today’s format.
Although the Warriors had a number of talented players on that pioneer state championship team, Van Dyke was quick to laud his former coach, Elmer Walcott.
“Elmer was a very good coach. Those were the days when coaches were more authoritative and really concentrated on the fundamentals. He was strict and a true disciplinarian, much like Harry Potter was for Muskegon,” praised VanDyke of his former coach.
VanDyke summed up his former coach (still currently residing in the Muskegon area at 88 years of age) by simply stating: “He really knew his stuff and he seemed to always make all the right decisions. And hey. he was pretty successful” replied one of the Warriors all-time greats in an understating tone.
Walcott was inducted into the Muskegon Area Hall of Fame in the second class ever to be inducted back in 1988.
While there is seemingly a revolving door for high school basketball coaches of late, that certainly isn’t the case at WMC.
From 1950 until the end of the 2012 school year, only three coaches had coached the Warriors. Sandwiched between the long time reigns of Walcott and Hall of Fame coach Jim Goorman, for one season, was the star point guard from those 1958 state champs, Eddie Heethuis.
Following his college days at CMU, Van Dyke also went into coaching and teaching before retiring from Fruitport High School.
But not before he had left a legacy at CMU with a record that still exists today.
When I quizzed Ken about his playing days at CMU he was proud to say: “Hey, I still have the freshman record at Central, averaging more than 10 rebounds a game (Actually it was even better at 11).
While doing some research for this story, I checked out the record books at CMU. Even though it has been more than 50 years since VanDyke last laced up his basketball sneakers, he is listed among the top 20 scorers all time at Central.
VanDyke was an even better rebounder for the Chippewas. He is still the third-leading rebounder all time for the Chips, just 20 less than his Muskegon area teammate Dave Nelson. For his career, VanDyke averaged more than 10 rebounds a game!
And yes, right at the top of the list is his freshman record of pulling down 271 rebounds back in 1959, a whopping 78 more than any other freshman player in CMU’s history.
Even today, the Warrior great is still a top-notch athlete who doesn’t look like he is a pound heavier than in his hey day. The 73-year-old Van Dyke still shoots his age on the golf course.
There are currently two coaches from Western Michigan Christian in the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame. With all those basketball trophies sitting in the trophy cases, my vote for the first former Warrior to go in, as a player, would be Ken Van Dyke.
Western Michigan Christian can look back proudly of their nine state championships, and 14 appearances at the state finals. But only this pioneer group from 1958 can boast that they started it all.