By George Pohly
EAST LANSING >> There’s some question as to whether New Haven is a “track school” or a “basketball school.”
After all, the Rockets, who played Friday in a state basketball semifinal game for the first time, won three consecutive state Class C track & field championships from 1994-96.
But there’s no question that hoops has carried the hopes and dreams of fans from the northern Macomb County village longer than any other sport.
“This is huge,” Chris Dilbert, 61, a former New Haven player who’s the president of the village of New Haven, said about a half-hour before tipoff of the Rockets’ game against Benton Harbor.
“We’ve waited our lifetimes for this,” Dilbert said. “It’s huge for the school. It’s probably even bigger for the community, as you can see by the turnout.
“I’ve always believed that high school athletics is the glue that holds everybody together. This is really big.”
Len Rogan played for New Haven in the 1970s. A shooting guard, he graduated from the school in 1976 and then for several seasons refereed high school games.
“For me, it’s everything,” Rogan said of the Rockets’ semifinal berth. “All the hard work we put in, all the times we made it right to the edge and didn’t get there.
“So to get there now, it’s like heaven. Everybody is so happy. I’m happy for the community, I’m happy for the school and I’m happy for the kids.”
Doors to the Breslin Center opened at 5 p.m. for the Class B doubleheader that began with the New Haven-Benton Harbor tip at 6.
New Haven fans were outside the arena 90 minutes early.
“The support is fantastic,” Rogan said. “It’s a wonderful thing. It was the same way back in the ‘70s and the ‘60s.”
Then Rogan added a line that has for years been the sentiment of village residents.
“If you want to rob the town,” Rogan said with a smile, “rob it on game day, because there won’t be anybody there.”
New Haven’s success in basketball, and its yearning for achievement at the state level, dates back generations.
The 1942-43 Foundrymen – that was New Haven’s nickname back in the day – were champions of the Little Six, a forerunner of the Southern Thumb Association.
New Haven fans of the 1940s era will tell you that the school, which for years was unable to get past the regional-final stage of the state tournament, was primed for a deep run until three of its better players were summoned for military duty during World War II.
The Rockets looked like threats to go past a regional when teams led by two-time county Player of the Year Eli Sims, Roy Lee and Scott Belt won consecutive STA championships in 1969, ’70 and ’71.
But each season ended with New Haven losing in regional championship games.
“It was painful,” Ken Sims, a younger brother of Eli who coached the Rockets in the 1990s, said.
From 1959 through 1982, New Haven competed in eight regionals. Seven times, the Rockets reached a regional final, and lost every time.
The Rockets finally won a regional championship in 1990. But they lost the ensuing quarterfinal game.
They didn’t win any of the first five regionals they appeared in after 1990. And then, after clearing the regional hurdle three times from 2012-16, they went 0-3 in quarterfinal games.
The frustration ended Tuesday when New Haven knocked off Detroit Osborn 73-66 in a quarterfinal at Marysville.
Ken Sims, who’s a former Rocket player who coached teams that included current New Haven coach Tedaro France II to regional finals in 1996 and 1997, was at the Breslin Center. He wore New Haven gear and the look of satisfied man.
“I’m overwhelmingly proud of our team this year,” Sims, a 1975 New Haven graduate, said. “I coached 20 years ago. We came up short.
“This right here is like redemption. It’s an exciting time for the whole city.”
Since 1980, county schools that went to state semifinals included Eisenhower, L’Anse Creuse North and Dakota.
The Little Six championship New Haven won in 1943 came about 30 years before any of those schools opened.
Eisenhower made a state semifinal in 1980, L’Anse Creuse North in 2012 and Dakota in 2016.
Now New Haven has taken its place with those teams and a select list of others from the county who reached a final four.
“We finally made it,” Ken Sims said. “I’m so proud. No matter what happens tonight, we’re here. We made it.”