Jets Firing as North Central Seeks Repeat

March 21, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

POWERS – A second straight Class D boys basketball championship. A third straight MHSAA title covering two sports. A 52-game winning streak.

Toss in an approaching individual scoring record for good measure.

Talk about a massive target on the back of the North Central Jets during the final week of the high school winter sports season. Or you can talk about goals they are close to attaining.

Or talk about pressure. Not, however, for the Jets (25-0), who face Onaway (21-4) on Tuesday in a Class D Quarterfinal at Sault Ste. Marie High School.

Coach Adam Mercier said his squad is just following a game-by-game approach, with the next game always the most important. As for a target on their collective backs, Mercier said, "it is not any bigger than the one they give themselves. They have high expectations, and we expect everyone's A game.

"They treat every game the same. They don't pack it in. They play as hard as they can. They follow every game plan we have."

The Jets are also busy re-writing the MHSAA record book. They already own the mark of 82 wins over three seasons, surpassing the record 79 shared by two Flint schools, Northwestern and Beecher. If the Jets win their final three games of this season, they will tie the mark of 55 wins set over two years by those two schools and would equal Saginaw Buena Vista for fourth place with 55 straight wins. (Chassell has the state mark of 65 straight).

North Central, which has not lost since falling to Cedarville 81-79 in a Quarterfinal game on March 18, 2014, is an astounding 82-1 over the past three years. Mercier is 162-79 in 10 seasons, after starting 6-37 over the first two at his alma mater.

Outstanding team chemistry, created in part through family connections in this small Upper Peninsula community, is perhaps as important for North Central's athletic success as having outstanding talent.

Junior Jason Whitens, an all-state selection on last year's championship team, is just 10 points shy of the school's career scoring record of 1,350 points owned by his uncle, Tom Granquist. Whitens took over the helm of this year's team after the graduation of his cousin, Rob Granquist. The two Granquists and Whitens also played quarterback for the Jets, with Whitens directing North Central to the 2015 8-player title in the fall.

Mercier became head coach of the boys basketball program in 2006 after Gerald Whitens left after a four-year stint.

"They're loose and they keep everything in perspective," Mercier said of his squad. "They have fun, they don't complicate things with egos or individual accolades. It is very similar to last year (basketball) and football. They are able to joke around, and they are able to critique one another. The perspective they have on each other is neat to see."

The system has worked wonderfully for the Jets, who also won the Class D title in 1983. A member of that team was Gerald Whitens, who is Jason's father and serves as an assistant coach on this squad.

Opposing coaches have a solid perspective on the Jets. Joel Schultz of neighboring Bark River-Harris said, "they combine size and athleticism you don't see in Class D. Couple that with the fact they are gym rats, it is just a perfect storm. They are above a level that is typical in Class D. They are better than a year ago."

Rock Mid Peninsula coach Mark Branstrom, who also coached against that 1983 title team, said, "they are about the most talented group of young men I've seen. It is hard to understand who will ever beat them. They are like a college team, and we are like a high school team.

"They have it all. They are so strong. I don't know where there weakness is."

Chris Nocerini of Crystal Falls Forest Park has been deeply frustrated by the Jets. The Trojans finished 22-3 this season, with all three losses provided by the Jets, including a 75-45 conquest Wednesday for their fourth straight Regional crown. Forest Park, always one of the peninsula's top quintets, is 0-10 against North Central the past four seasons.

"They are a good team, they are deep, they have a nice rotation," Nocerini said. "They have played together for a long time. What makes North Central good is their players understand their roles and when they get their chances, they take advantage of it."

Whitens is averaging 22 points but is also a tremendous distributor and rebounder. Teammates Dawson Bilski (15 ppg) and Bobby Kleiman (11) are also in double digit scoring, while Troy Ekberg and Morgan Cox provide excellent scoring and rebounding inside. Seth Polfus and Marcus Krachinski provide the prime bench support.

"The key for us is having guys off the bench who are willing to accept their roles. It is rare to find those kind of teams nowadays to find kids willing to take a lesser role," said Mercier, who helped out on the sidelines during the team's football playoff run last fall.

The Jets, with six juniors, are averaging 78 points a game while permitting just 41. They also boast a team grade-point average near 3.5.

North Central was seldom threatened this year, trailing at halftime in one game against Mid Peninsula, escaping Crystal Falls with a 61-57 victory March 1 and coming from behind late in the fourth quarter Feb. 9 at Class B Menominee to win 64-60.

Mercier said the game at Menominee, on one of the hardest floors for visiting teams to play, "gave us a good idea where and what we needed to improve. That was our biggest win. We had to respond and Jason Whitens took over. That was our signature win of the year."

While Whitens is the team leader, BR-H coach Schultz said, "Bilski is their best ball player. Cox may be one of the top players in the U.P. on any other team. He is a real unique piece of the team. He is a beast, strong and explosive." While Whitens is the primary focus for opponents, Schultz said if you can slow him down "you get killed by someone else."

Branstrom said of Whitens: "His first step is so quick. He has all the tools. He can hit shots from anywhere. He can do about anything he wants to do (including dunks and triples). He is long and tall and looks like a greyhound on a fast break."

Branstrom says Kleiman "is the glue of that team" and that Bilski "has all the tools. He is a natural. Cox inside is an animal and Ekberg is long and tall and can shoot from anywhere."

It is also tough to defend the Jets because Branstrom said "their passing skills are spectacular. Not just good; spectacular."

The North Central-Onaway winner advances to East Lansing and will meet the winner of Fulton (18-6) and Bellaire (24-1) in Thursday's semifinal at 7:50 p.m.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central celebrates its Class D Regional title win over Crystal Falls Forest Park on Wednesday. (Middle) The Jets downed the Trojans 75-45 in front of a packed crowd. (Photos by Paul Gerard.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)