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@example.com 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.)
TEMPERANCE – The Bedford Mules are kicking up a special boys basketball season in southeast Michigan.
Temperance Bedford is off to a 10-1 start, the best for the school in a decade. Third-year coach Jordan Bollin is happy to bring a winner to his alma mater.
“Bedford has had good teams here and there and good players and coaches, but it never seemed to be anything that was sustained,” Bollin said. “I knew it was going to be a challenge.”
Bollin played varsity basketball at Bedford, graduating in 2006. He went into coaching almost immediately after high school and was named head coach at Dundee in 2015. After 68 wins in five seasons, Bollin was named head coach at Bedford.
“I talked it over with my wife, with the athletic director, with (assistant coach) Mark Hubbard,” Bollin said. “I always, in the back of my mind, thought that I would want to come back to Bedford and coach one day. I wanted to do it while I was still relatively a young coach who still had the passion for all of this. It’s the right time.
“I felt like, leaving Dundee, I had an opportunity to build something myself.”
Wrestling has been the winter sports king at Bedford for decades as the Mules spent years at the top of Class A/Division 1 wrestling circles. The boys basketball team has enjoyed its moments, such as a three-year span when it went 18-6, 18-5 and 14-8 across 2012-2014, but there have been down years, too. Various coaches have tried their hand at the helm, including former NBA player Dennis Hopson.
Bollin himself played for coach Bill Ryan, who led the boys team for seven years but has found ultra-success with Bedford’s girls basketball program.
Bollin knew that when he took over the varsity, he wanted to incorporate the entire program.
“No program is one coach,” he said.
He brought multiple assistants with him from Dundee, including longtime Monroe County coach Hubbard, a Bedford graduate, and former head coach in the county himself. The two have formed a bond.
“We talk every day on the phone before practice,” Bollin said. “We go to lunch once or twice a week. He’s a mentor and someone I talk to all the time.”
Bedford has posted wins over a variety of teams this season, from Southeastern Conference teams like Dexter and Monroe to Ottawa Lake Whiteford, Adrian Lenawee Christian and Stockbridge. Ten of the Mules’ final 11 games are against SEC schools, including two against 8-3 Saline.
Bollin knows the toughest is yet to come.
“We get Ann Arbor Huron at home,” he said. “We lost to them by three on the road. We had the ball, down two in the final seconds and had the ball and were called for a travel. It was close.”
Six-foot-7 Andrew Hollinger is the team’s top scorer and rebounder. Four years ago, he played five games on the varsity, then was a starter in Bollin’s first season. He’s now closing in on 1,000 career points and is one of the best rebounders in southeast Michigan.
“He’s phenomenal,” Bollin said. “He plays so hard, and he’s a great kid. He’s a 4.0 student and very humble. You’ll never hear him talk about himself; it’s always about the team.”
While he’s proven to be a great scorer and free throw shooter this season, Hollinger is also a relentless rebounder.
“I’ve always been one of the tallest out on the court, so I know that I can really use that to my advantage in order to rebound,” he said. “Once the shot goes up, I try to chase down the ball or box someone out in order to give my team the chance to get the ball back.”
Bollin said Hollinger’s intensity shows.
“I use him as an example to the other kids all of the time,” Bollin said.
Twice this season Hollinger has set the school record for most consecutive free throws made in a game. He went 15-for-15 once and 16-for-16 another time. Hollinger averaged a double-double last year at 18.2 points and 10.8 rebounds and has topped those numbers through 11 games this season.
Hollinger is one of eight seniors on the roster. Like Bollin, he’s a homegrown talent, having made his way up from the Bedford Community Education program in the fourth grade to middle school, JV and varsity.
“I fell in love with basketball when I played in the local community ed program,” he said.
Hollinger said all of the seniors had a feeling this was going to be a great season.
“I think the success from our team comes from how hard we play every game and how much experience we have,” he said. “We knew coming into the season that we were in pretty much every game the season before and just had to find a way to start winning games.”
Bedford won six games during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season and four a year ago – losing several games that came down to the final minute. Bollin has matched the win total in those first two years at Bedford in two months.
Ironically, Bollin said, it was the 2020-21 season during which most of this year’s seniors learned to play varsity basketball.
“We had so many games where we had players out for COVID that we had to bring a lot of them up to the varsity to play,” he said. “A lot of the seniors this year got a ton of playing time that year.”
The other current seniors include Griffin Wolf, Tommy Huss, Jimmy Fackelman, Simon Eighmey, Caleb Kochendoerfer, Evan Campbell, and Leo Wagenhauser. They are complimented by a couple sophomores and juniors plus freshman Carsen Behnke.
Hollinger is hopeful the first-half success will continue.
“We all believed in each other in the offseason, and that belief still continues through the start of the season,” he said, deflecting any attention from himself. “I love how basketball is a team game and how you need the whole team to be playing hard in order to win. It’s not just about one person, but it’s about everyone.”
Bollin said he could sense this summer that this season had the makings of being something special.
“I thought we’d have a nice season, but, no, I wasn’t expecting 10-1,” he said. “But, in the summer, I knew when everyone was there and together, we were tough to beat.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Bedford’s Andrew Hollinger works for an opening while surrounded by Monroe defenders last season. (Middle) Bedford boys basketball coach Jordan Bollin. (Below) Hollinger brings the Mules up court during a 63-43 win Friday. (Action photos by Tom Hawley and Mike Doughty, respectively, and courtesy of the Monroe News.)