ALPENA — As a middle schooler, Bruce VanderWall went to a packed gym and watched players like Howard French and Rod Marlatt star in Alpena High School basketball games.
Some day, WanderWall told himself, I want to do that.
“It was exciting. The gym was packed for every game and if you didn’t get there by halftime of the JV game, you probably weren’t going to get a seat,” VanderWall said. “It was an exciting time for Alpena basketball.”
VanderWall, a 1967 Alpena High graduate, made the most of his opportunities when he got his turn, playing on teams that won a lot of games, won district championships, and a regional title.
His ability as a superb shooter made him one of the Wildcats’ most reliable scorers and is a big reason why he’s a part of the Alpena Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Terry Thomas and Tom Lavoie, James Hubert, Bob Kelley, Eric Puls, and Shannon Woloszyk during the 37th annual banquet on May 7 at the APlex.
The banquet has been canceled each of the last two years due to COVID-19 concerns.
“I found out two years ago (I was being inducted), so it’s been a while,” VanderWall said with a laugh. “Overall, I’m surprised and pleased. It’s been a long time (since I played) and I’m glad some people remembered.”
VanderWall was a two-sport star for Alpena, excelling in both baseball and basketball. It was in basketball where he made perhaps his greatest mark as an important piece of the puzzle during a successful stretch for the Wildcats.
In his three varsity seasons, Alpena went 53-7 and won plenty of postseason hardware. Playing on teams that included Harvey Marlatt, the Wildcats gained a reputation as one of the toughest teams to play in the state.
During a time without specialists or the three-point line, VanderWall excelled in Alpena’s backcourt as a guard and became one of the program’s most prolific scorers at that time.
In three seasons, he was one of Alpena’s most reliable scorers and finished with 711 career points, good for second place behind Marlatt on Alpena’s all-time scoring list.
VanderWall is currently 14th on the list, but remained in the top five for almost 20 years after his graduation.
Basketball came naturally to VanderWall, but he attributed his scoring prowess to hours of hard work outside of school.
“I never met a shot I didn’t like,” VanderWall said, laughing. “I was blessed with the ability to shoot a basketball, but I worked hard at it. As a youngster, I can remember racing home from school in the winter, putting on a pair of gloves, and going out to shoot. When the gloves got wet, I’d come inside and put them on the register, wait for them to dry, and go out again.”
He averaged 19.6 points per game as a senior and scored 21 in his final game for Alpena, a regional loss to Flint Central. For his career, he averaged 16.2 points per game.
Alpena teams of that era had plenty of talent, but VanderWall said Dennis’ preparation and coaching were important in molding that talent.
Long before scouting became standard practice among teams, Dennis routinely traveled to scout Alpena’s opponents and picked up out-of-town newspapers to help players prepare for upcoming matchups.
“He was awesome. Looking back, I would have said he was ahead of time,” VanderWall said. “I remember (after practice) finding the next opponent’s picture and a note about his tendencies.”
VanderWall hoped to play both baseball and basketball after graduation and garnered interest from several schools. During his time at Alpena High, he lettered in baseball for three years.
He ultimately played both sports at Alpena Community College for two years and was an ace on the mound during the 1968 and 1969 seasons.
From there, WanderWall went to Eastern Michigan University to play baseball, but arm troubles ended his hopes of playing in his final two seasons. It was then that he embraced his passion for teaching, and later, coaching.
Upon graduation, VanderWall took over as varsity boys basketball coach at Merrill and soaked up as many pointers as he could from Alpena coaches Bill Frieder and Jim Dutcher. He later coached basketball at Big Rapids High for four years before getting into administrative roles. He spent more than three decades in administrative roles at several schools before retiring, unretiring, and then retiring for good in 2013.
Over the years, many Alpena basketball stars from VanderWall’s era have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including: Harvey Marlatt (1985), Rod Marlatt (1997), and Dennis (2016).
Next week, VanderWall will take his place among that group and many other all-time Alpena greats.
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