By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – Basketball used to be king in Detroit. Detroit Public School League teams like Detroit Cooley, Detroit Pershing, Detroit Southwestern and others won MHSAA championships and sent numerous players on to college to play at major universities like Michigan, Michigan State and others.
Recently the quality of basketball has taken a step back, and football has taken center stage.
This past March, Detroit Western International was the first PSL team to win the Class A boys basketball title since Pershing in 2009 and just the second since Detroit Central won the Class A title in 1998. This is a far cry from what is considered one of the glory eras in PSL history. From 1987-94, teams from the PSL won eight consecutive Class A titles.
(It should be noted that Detroit Renaissance did win Class B titles in 2004 and 2006, and Detroit Crockett also won the Class B title in 2001.)
In 2007 Detroit King was the first PSL team to win a football state title. For those outside of the city, it might not have meant that much other than a simple statistic. But for the PSL coaches who longed for respect statewide, King’s victory over Midland in the Division 2 Final was vindication.
When Detroit Cass Tech won back-to-back Division 1 titles (2011, 2012) a few years later, football fans across the state began to realize that what King accomplished in 2007 was not a fluke. Teams from Detroit were relevant statewide.
This weekend another first will take place. King will play for the Division 2 title (against Lowell) on Friday and Cass Tech will play for the Division 1 title (against Romeo) on Saturday. It’s the first time two PSL teams will play for MHSAA championships in the same season. Both games kick off at 1 p.m. at Ford Field.
The milestone is not lost on the coaches, Dale Harvel of King and Thomas Wilcher of Cass Tech.
Wilcher pointed to King and then-coach James Reynolds for taking the lead. King was the first PSL team to reach an MHSAA Final (1989 and 1990), and by doing so created instant credibility.
“King established what we could accomplish,” Wilcher said. “By winning the first state title, by winning both the PSL and then the state the same year.
“I don’t prepare my kids the same way. From day one I’m preparing for a state championship, Thanksgiving Day weekend, not for nine weeks. You have to condition a different way. You have to have a long-haul focus. The kids you started with might not be the ones you finish with. King High set that bar.”
Step aside for moment and realize what Wilcher said. Cass Tech and King is the most intense rivalry in the city. Emotions run high, and sometimes they boil over. But here is the coach from one team praising the other. In addition to the rivalry, there is mutual respect.
“It’s great,” Wilcher said of the two city powers playing for a title. “It’s great for the city.”
Regardless of what takes place Friday, Harvel said he, his staff and players will be at Ford Field in support of Cass Tech.
And Harvel said it’s not just about King and Cass Tech. What will take place this weekend will affect all PSL schools: their players, coaches, student body and alumni.
“It’s a factor with our school system,” he said. “It’s a pride factor even if you don’t play for Cass or King. The alumni for all public schools are represented.”
Harvel said even though most point to the 2007 championship season as a turning point, it was the teams that lost in the Class A Final in 1989 and 1990 that started it all. Some forget that back in 1989 there were just four MHSAA Finals champions, not eight, making King’s run all the more noteworthy. The next season the playoffs were expanded from four classifications to eight.
Coincidentally, each team has had two difficult playoff games and two one-sided affairs on their way to Ford Field. King (13-0) trailed Detroit U-D Jesuit, 24-21, in a Pre-District before winning, 35-24, and King led Detroit East English 7-0 after three quarters before pulling away for a 26-12 victory in a Regional Final.
Cass Tech (11-2) blew past its first two opponents by the combined score of 84-20. In the Regional Final it trailed Macomb Dakota 10-0 before coming back for a 16-10 victory. Last week, the Technicians held on to defeat Canton 48-41 on a snow-covered field at Troy Athens. Canton had possession on Cass Tech’s 40 for the last play of the game.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTO: Detroit Cass Tech (green helmets) and Detroit Martin Luther King, here in the Detroit PSL Final, give the league two MHSAA finalists for the first time. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.)