By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – For the last three seasons and 83 straight games, Powers North Central’s boys basketball team has been perfect.
And for the first eight minutes Saturday, as these Jets played together for the last time, they couldn't have been much better.
Buckley never recovered completely from one of the most impressive opening barrages in recent Finals history. But the Bears did make North Central work to add this latest win, a 78-69 victory to claim a third straight Class D championship.
In their last game together, Jets senior starters Jason Whitens, Dawson Bilski, Bobby Kleiman, Marcus Krachinski and Seth Polfus all contributed as the team made its first 15 shots. Bilski tied the MHSAA championship game record for points in a quarter with 18 in the first as North Central as a team fell just shy of making the list for most points in a quarter, putting up 38 total – enough of a run to help them survive a nearly-as-epic comeback by the Bears, who also were undefeated heading into the day.
“Over the past couple of years, kids like me and Seth and Marcus, we never had the starting spots coming up. We had to wait a little while. We had to play our role,” Kleiman said. “But having two players like Jason and Dawson, that makes us just as good a players as them. They help us every day. They’re the ones who make us better. When things get tight, we look to them.”
“(But) we’re a team. And that’s where a lot of teams lack, is the team part. They have individuals, but us, we’re family. We love each other. And this whole ride has just been crazy, and we’ll never forget it.”
The Jets finished 28-0, and sit 83-0 over the last three seasons after again extending the nation’s longest active winning streak. Whitens capped his high school career with a 108-1 record over four varsity seasons, giving him not only a state record for wins but also breaking the record by four for most varsity boys basketball games played in MHSAA history. Bilski also started on all three championship teams and joined Whitens earning Class D all-state honors earlier this week. On Jan. 27, with their 66th straight win, they broke the MHSAA record for consecutive wins previously set by Chassell from 1956-58.
Coming off Thursday’s one-point, buzzer-beating Semifinal victory over Southfield Christian, Saturday’s start made it seem like a Jets victory lap was about to begin. At the end of the first quarter, North Central led 38-20 and had made 15 of 17 shots from the floor.
But much to Buckley’s credit, it didn’t show a sign of folding. The Bears were dominated by star juniors and will surprise no one if they make another run in 2018. Despite entering Saturday with a 26-0 record, they weren’t expected by most to win – but never let that sink in, even while staring up at a double-digit deficit less than four minutes into the game.
“I was just thinking man, they’re shooting the lights out. They’ve been here before, they’re all seniors, they want it that bad. We’ve just got to match their intensity,” Buckley junior Denver Cade said. “Sometimes they’re just putting them up there, going in, and you’re holding on. After that’s done, you’re just right back going at them, so we did.”
Buckley won the second and fourth quarters and tied North Central 10-10 in the third, taking advantage in part as Bilski left the game for an extended period after picking up his fourth foul just 1:32 into the second half.
But his absence may have only kept the Jets from increasing the lead – he re-entered with 6:30 to play and the Jets up 13, but from there Buckley launched a 13-3 run over four minutes to pull within 68-65 on Ridge Beeman’s basket with 2:41 to play.
“If we score 38 points in a quarter, typically teams kinda roll over,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said. “That didn’t happen today, and that’s a credit to those Buckley kids. We had to fight tooth and nail with them in the fourth quarter. I was just so proud of our kids, the way they finished this game.
“For these guys, it just comes with the territory. I sat here two or three years ago, trying to explain this group of boys – now they’re men – we just talked about that ‘it’ factor. It starts with these seniors and the seniors we had in the past, and that ‘it’ factor rings through with all of them.”
And as Kleiman said, when things got tight, the Jets turned to their accomplished stars.
Bilski and Whitens combined to score nine points during a 10-4 run to finish the game and a legacy that may not be approached for another half-century.
“You don’t think a team’s going to back down. You always have to keep coming back at them,” said Whitens, who also quarterbacked two straight undefeated football teams. “Respect to them for just keeping coming at us. It makes the game more fun. That’s what it’s all about, opponents going head to head, and they didn’t quit. We just had to keep going at it, and had a lot of fun doing it.”
Saturday's Final was the first featuring two undefeated teams since Shelby downed Stockbridge 71-57 in the 1971 Class C championship game. It was the first Class D Final pitting undefeated teams since Covert beat Ewen-Trout Creek 84-70 in 1966.
Bilski, who will continue his career at Michigan Tech, scored 25 points in just 20 minutes, making 8 of 9 shots from the floor. Whitens – a Mr. Basketball Award finalist this season – had 23 points on 8 of 11 shooting, while Kleiman added 12 points and Krachinski had 11 and seven assists.
Cade also scored 25 points with seven rebounds, and junior center Austin Harris had 22 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Joey Weber added 15 more points and seven rebounds for the Bears.
All five Buckley starters should return next season.
“We’re going to use that as fuel. When we see them holding up that trophy, we’re not going to pout and cry about it,” Harris said. “We’re going to get really, really mad, get back in the gym, and do it really hard and see if we can win next year. You haven’t seen the last of us.”
PHOTOS: (Top) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman drives to the basket during Saturday’s Class D Final. (Middle) The Jets’ Marcus Krachinski tries to block a shot by Buckley’s Denver Cade.
When Cheboygan hosts Ogemaw Heights next week to kick off a new boys basketball season, those attending will see something special.
And really, for Cheboygan and its opponents, it’s nothing new. It’s been going on for five decades.
The special part? Scott Hancock, junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach, is starting his 47th year coaching at the school. Forty-five of those years have been in the same role he has this season.
“It really just means I’m getting old, but I feel very fortunate to be able to do something that I love for this long,” Hancock, himself a Cheboygan product of 1976, reflected on his tenure. “To be honest, I never really thought about how long I would do it. It’s just something I love doing, so I never really put a number on how long I would do it.”
As the campaign starts, though, he has thoughts of coaching high school basketball for six and possibly seven decades before he hangs it up. He has coached his sons — Nick, who owns the Cheboygan career steals record; and Brian, the leader in career made 3-pointers — and now he’s looking forward to the possibility of coaching his two grandchildren, Landon Gahn and Lincoln Hancock.
“Well, all I can say is I have a grandson that is 3 years old, and I would love to hang around coaching until he graduates,” Hancock said of how long he thinks he’ll stay in coaching. “I have loved every year.
“I have coached with a lot of great coaches who are all great friends to this day.”
Included among those coaches are his two sons, who served as assistants for Cheboygan, and Jason Friday, the current varsity coach who also played for Hancock during the early 1990s – a time when Hancock briefly stepped in to fill a varsity coaching vacancy after the sudden departure of the previous head coach.
Friday, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, is not at all surprised his former coach is still in the game. It became a factor in Friday’s decision to take over the boys program three years ago.
“If you're a boy who grew up in Cheboygan, there's a good chance that Scott coached you in something,” Friday said. “He has a grandson who is in eighth grade, and he wants to coach him.
“So yes, I knew he was going to be around for several more years.”
And next week, Friday will be thrilled to have Hancock alongside him on the court as Cheboygan opens up with the Falcons.
“Today, I don't look at Scott as one of my former varsity coaches — he's a friend,” Friday said. “We're friends more than anything, and that makes coaching even more fun for me.
“Most importantly, having someone on the bench that you can trust is invaluable.”
Hancock, who was helping with the boys program when Friday was coaching the Cheboygan girls team, began expecting to coach with his former player some time ago.
“I was very fortunate to have both my sons be assistant coaches for our varsity program,” said Hancock, who also has served decades coaching baseball and keeping stats for the football program. “But as far as being head coach, I always thought Jason would take over at some time.
“It’s awesome to have a former player running our program, but it is no surprise,” he continued. “Jason has always been a student of the game and is very detailed, and what he does, our program is in great hands.”
The mutual trust the coaches share has really benefited the Cheboygan student-athletes.
“I think it is important to have a JV coach who the head coach can trust that he has bought in to all of the beliefs of the head coach’s program,” Hancock noted. “Being loyal to your varsity coach and doing what’s best for your program is the most important aspect of JV coaching.
“And, getting kids to buy in to what it takes to play the game the right way.”
That’s one of the strengths Hancock brings to the basketball program, Friday singled out.
“Coach Hancock does a tremendous job teaching the fundamentals, but also does a great job communicating with the boys, making each one feel valued, even those who don't play as much,” Friday said. “He's at every practice.
“If there's an emergency and I need to step out for a minute and put my AD hat on, he can run practice and we don't miss a beat,” Friday continued. “He has a tremendous knowledge of the game and is a coach anyone would love on their bench.”
Hancock, who assists another former player, Kevin Baller, coaching the baseball team, has no thoughts of getting back into a varsity coaching position.
“I have no plans to coach at the varsity level, and the reason is because I have the best of both worlds by coaching JV,” said Hancock, who sees the 3-point shot as the biggest change in the game during his tenure. “Every coach that I have worked for lets me be involved with the varsity, so really I get to be involved in both.”
Friday recalls wishing as a player that Hancock had stayed at the helm when he took over temporarily. But, he loves having him coach with him today.
“After our junior season, we were told he was going back to JV,” Friday said. “We tried to convince him to stay for one more year, but he wanted to go back.
“There's no way I could be varsity basketball coach and athletic director without having a JV coach like Scotty.”
Off the court successes in life are just as importance as athletic endeavors, Hancock indicated. In fact, those give him the most pride.
“Probably helping kids with off-the-court issues makes me feel better than anything,” he said. “Also hearing from the kids that I’ve coached after they graduate and how much they enjoyed their JV year.”
There aren’t many – if any – parent, player or community member names on a complaint list from Hancock’s first five decades, and there’s not likely to be any more in however many years are ahead.
“When you’ve coached in the same small town for nearly 50 years, you’d expect to have a few people upset with you, but not Scotty,” said Friday. “You can’t find a person who says something bad about him.
“He’s extremely well-respected,” he continued. “You absorb his passion and love of the game just by being around him, and all of Cheboygan should be thankful (for) how much he's done for our community.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Cheboygan assistant boys basketball coach Scott Hancock offers some pointers during a scrimmage last week. (Middle) Hancock, second from left, confers last season with assistant Matt Mylnarchek, head coach Jason Friday and player Dylan Balazovic. (Photos courtesy of Jared Greenleaf/Cheboygan Daily Tribune.)