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.)

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.

A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.

Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.

Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.

“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.  

In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.

She answered, and it was Beckett.

“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”

Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.

At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.

“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.

Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.

“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”

But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.

Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.

That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.

“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”

Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.

However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.

“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.

Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.

It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.

“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”     

Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.

“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”

Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.

“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.