As Jets Pursue, Chassell Star Recalls Record

January 19, 2017

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States when Chassell High School established a record that has spanned 10 presidencies.

Now another Upper Peninsula school, Powers North Central, is poised to surpass that cherished standard, just a week into the term of a new president, Donald Trump.

Chassell reeled off 65 straight victories from Feb. 1, 1956, to Nov. 23, 1958. North Central (9-0) has 64 consecutive wins, a streak that began Dec. 8, 2014. The Jets will try to equal the record Tuesday when they host Rock Mid Peninsula, then the record-setter would come Friday when they host neighboring Bark River-Harris (9-1) in a game that will be broadcast live on

Flint Northwestern is the only school to challenge Chassell’s hallowed mark, winning 60 in a row before losing Feb. 10, 1986. Chassell eclipsed the state record of another U.P. school, 59 straight by Mass-Greenland from Dec. 12, 1946, to Jan. 28, 1949.

Chassell was the first U.P. school to bring an MHSAA championship trophy across the Mackinac Bridge, in 1958, shortly after it opened to traffic.

North Central is located in northern Menominee County, just six miles north of Carney-Nadeau High School, which owns the state girls basketball consecutive win record of 78 games (1989-91).

North Central coach Adam Mercier said the Jets first looked at the Chassell record after winning a second straight Class D title March 26, 2016. “We wondered if we would be able to do it,” Mercier said a day before making Big Bay de Noc victim No. 64. “It is rewarding to be named coach of such an historic team. I feel privileged to have coached these kids.”

The basketball team’s success has been shared by the school’s football team, which has won two consecutive 8-player MHSAA championships with 27 straight victories overall. With several students on both teams, that means those boys have won 91 straight games during the fall and winter seasons.

Mercier said the Jets have not spent a lot of time talking about Chassell’s record. “The last week or two we’ve talked about the distraction part of it,” he said, indicating people have been talking about it and the coaches wanted the players to respond appropriately.

Former Jets’ skipper Bob Whitens, who coached the team to the 1984 Class D title, spoke to the players recently. Mercier said his message was when you go to practice an athlete does one of two things: Get better or get worse. “He asked the players to think about that on a daily basis,” Mercier said of emphasizing daily improvement.

“It is something historic. You don’t want to diminish its historic value by not talking about it,” said Mercier, adding “we have always been week-to-week about our goals.”

Their first goal is winning a third straight Class D championship, but the postseason does not begin until March 6. So the immediate focus can now turn to Chassell’s record. “We are trying mentally and physically to prepare for that moment. This week was the first time we tried to prepare for that night. We are ramping it up as District week, treating the next three games as the next three games in the District.”

North Central has not really been challenged this season, with a 70-59 victory at Class B Menominee the closest game. Menominee also provided the biggest challenge last season, falling 64-60 at home when Jason Whitens snapped a 60-60 tie with a layup and free throw with seven seconds left for the Jets’ 40th straight win.

Chassell also had a few escapes during its record run, none bigger than in the 1956 Class D championship game when the Panthers trailed by 15 points with 3:20 left. With a stifling full-court press, Chassell scored the final 18 points to beat Portland St. Patrick 71-68.  (U.P. schools Stephenson and Crystal Falls also won MHSAA titles that day).

“They didn’t get the ball past half-court,” recalled Don Mattson of Ishpeming, one of three surviving members of that first title team. “Jenison Field House was going nuts.”

Mattson said coach Ed Helakoski picked up the diamond press from coach John Gaffney of Houghton, who used it to help the Gremlins win the 1955 Class C title. “We played a man-to-man zone. They call it a match-up zone now,” said Mattson. “We practiced it every day. Everyone knew their assignments.”

The Panthers repeated as champs in 1957 and managed to extend their win streak by edging L’Anse 64-63 and erasing an 18-2 deficit to upend Negaunee St. Paul.

“The 1957 team was our best team,” said Mattson, the only player to start all 65 games during the streak. “We had size and experience. We were good.”

In 1958, the escape act came against Doelle High School, in a game moved from Tapiola to Houghton High School to accommodate the large crowd. “Doelle was our big rival,” Mattson said. “We were two points down when the horn went off. Bobby Belhumer, the fastest kid in school, was fouled (at mid-court) when a Doelle player reached in as the horn goes off. He never made two free throws in his life and he had a 1-and-1.

“We all thought we were done. The first shot was real flat, herky-jerky (shooting) motion. It hit the front of the rim, skidded across and hit the back of the rim, bounced up and hit the top of the backboard and fell right through the hole. The basketball gods were smiling on us. The second one he just nailed, we got to overtime (60-60) and we won 72-66.”

Mattson said the 1958 champions “were not as good as 1957 but we knew how to win. Ed just kept coaching us.”

Chassell beat Stevensville 58-50 in 1957 Final and Owosso St. Paul 66-61 in the 1958 title game. Chassell’s winning streak ended in the 1958-59 season opener with a one-point loss to Ewen.

“Fifty-nine years ago. Guys always throw that at me,” Mattson said. “It doesn’t bother me one bit. We must have done something good. It was a number. That is all it was. That is pretty much the way I’ve looked at it for 59 years.”

Unlike the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, who share a toast once the season’s last unbeaten team loses, Mattson is cheering for the Jets.

“I just hope the Jets can break the record. I’m glad to see a U.P. team go break it,” he said. “Let’s keep it on this side of the (Mackinac) bridge. It is just a matter of the right time, the right place, the conditions and the players. Records are just a number.”

The only other survivors from those teams are Belhumer, who lives near Milwaukee, and Paul Makela, who lives in California. The trio joined the U.S. Navy together, after Mattson spent a year playing at Northern Michigan University.

The players were not aware they set a state record, with Mattson recalling that Helakoski told them not to read the paper or believe what was written and that he would save the papers and distribute them after the season.

They followed the same approach used by the Jets, playing one game at a time, going day-by-day. “I give Helakoski credit for keeping us on a low keel,” said Mattson. “We never thought we were better than anybody. We just kept level-headed. We didn’t realize what we did until we were out of school.”

Mattson, whose son Troy is the women’s basketball coach at NMU, said the game has changed drastically since he was a two-time all-state selection.

“We had small gyms; there was no roll-dribble. The hand was on top of the ball or else it was (called) a carry. Our game was passing, put the ball on the floor a couple of times, go up and shoot or pass the ball,” he said.

He has seen the Jets play but doesn’t plan to attend the potential record-breaker. “I’ll see them in the Regional (at Negaunee),” he said. “Another thought crossed my mind. North Central is going to win another state championship. I’m confident of that. If they do, they will have about 80 wins in a row.”

The Jets have tried to keep the record chase low key, but Mercier said that approach is changing as the record bid approaches.

“Our players, now they see it is there within reach. They really want it,” he said, noting they appreciate the importance of U.P. basketball. “We don’t want to downplay it by any means. As we get closer they are expecting to reach that goal, and they know the hard work it has taken to reach it.”

He doesn’t believe the players are feeling the pressure of maintaining or extending the streak. “The players are doing a great job of deflecting the pressure, and that allows us to be a little looser with our approach,” Mercier added. “They don’t seem frazzled by the pressure because they have prepared for the moment.”

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) Chassell's 1955-56 team started its record 65-game winning streak. (Middle) The 1956-57 (top) and 1957-58 teams also won MHSAA championships. (Below) Former players met for an MHSAA "Legends" celebration during the 1998 Boys Basketball Finals.

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.)