North Central Repeats Perfect Run in D

March 26, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

EAST LANSING – Jason Whitens held two fingers up as he moved through his teammates to the handshake line after Saturday morning’s Class D Final.

Their reaction to winning a second straight MHSAA championship was of course filled with celebration – but also respect. 

The Jets are in the midst of one of the most impressive runs in Michigan high school basketball history. And they had just withstood one of their few tests of the 2015-16 season.

North Central won its 55th straight game Saturday morning, 59-48 over Waterford Our Lady to claim a second straight championship at the Breslin Center – but after breaking away when the Lakers trailed by four with only four minutes to play. 

“They were playing harder than us, to be honest. We kinda got lazy, and they came out and wanted to hit us in the mouth,” North Central junior guard Jason Whitens said. “We took their shot, and we’ve taken shots all year. We just had to take it in and battle back. But they moved the ball real well, (Andrew) Kline’s a great player, and it’s just a great team over there.”

And a growing legendary one from the small village, with a school enrollment of 122, located west of Escanaba at the crossroads of U.S 2 and 41 on the southern end of the Upper Peninsula. 

The Jets finished 28-0, which with last season's 27-0 record ties them for the most wins, 55, of any team over two seasons. 

And not to move on too quickly from the repeat celebration – but there’s suddenly a lot more to look forward to next season as well. 

North Central now stands tied with Saginaw Buena Vista’s 1992-94 teams for the fourth longest winning streak in MHSAA boys basketball history. The record is 65 straight set by Chassell’s teams from 1956-59.

Five programs have won three straight championships during the 90 years of the Class D Finals. And the Jets would seem to be favored to become the sixth with Whitens, starters Dawson Bilski and Bobby Kleiman and up to 12 players total expected to return.

But along the way, Our Lady (22-5) was one of the most formidable opponents North Central faced this season – and provided a genuine scare into the fourth quarter.

The Jets opened the second half on a 13-3 run to build an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter. But with seniors Andrew Kline and Devin Senerius mostly taking turns getting to the basket, Our Lady went on a 23-9 run to cut the deficit to 49-45 with 5:24 left.

“We knew they were going to have a lot of confidence coming into the game. They were blowing out everyone; they won by 40 in the semis,” Kline said. “Coach kept telling us they have all the pressure on them. No one was expecting us to come out and win the game. We knew if we just did our thing, played them tough, we had a chance. We had nothing to really be nervous about.”

“That’s the biggest run somebody’s gone on us in a while, so I was interested in seeing how our kids were going to handle it coming out for the fourth quarter,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said.

The Jets did so not relying on Whitens, their leading scorer at 22 points per game, but by spreading the offense. Six players scored down the stretch as North Central finished on a 10-3 run started on a basket by senior Morgan Cox and a 3-pointer by junior Marcus Krachinski.

“Morgan’s basket was huge. We got a steal in there, I think too. And we executed some plays – my kids were probably shocked. I don’t call many plays,” Mercier said. “Their mental focus was great to start that fourth quarter. They understood that this (Our Lady) team was a very good team. I know we were favorites and everything, but anytime you’ve got a state finalist in football, they’re going to be kids that don’t back down from anybody.”

Actually, both teams playing Saturday morning were football finalists – Our Lady was the Division 8 runner-up for 11-player with Clay and Devin Senerius playing starring roles, and North Central won the 8-player championship with Whitens finishing the fall with 45 touchdown passes without an interception.

And they matched athletes well. North Central shot better, and especially from long range making 9 of 18 3-point attempts. But Our Lady had more rebounds (35-27) and only 12 turnovers to the Jets’ eight.

“We knew coming into it that it wasn’t a team we were going to beat probably best of seven. But we thought that we could take advantage of some of their personality,” Our Lady coach Paul Robak said. “They’re a team that scores 80 points a game, and they want to win by 50. They don’t want to win by 10. And we thought we could use that against them possibly if we could get them to play a style that maybe they aren’t as comfortable with. … We did some of the things that I thought were going to be key.”

Kline led Our Lady with 22 points, four assists and three steals. Devin Senerius added 17 points and nine rebounds.

Whitens had 16 points and seven rebounds. Bilski added 15 points, three assists and four steals and senior Troy Ekberg had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists. 

Our Lady ended up as one of three teams to come within 12 points of North Central this winter. The Jets had beaten teams by an average of 34 points entering Saturday, with only Class B Menominee and rival Crystal Falls Forest Park coming closer; Menominee fell by 12 and four, and Forest Park also lost by only four to go with defeats of 14 and 30.

“This year we had a couple blowouts, and they’re still fun,” Bilski said. “But being together having close games, it shows who we are and if we’ll fall apart or not. As you can see, we didn’t fall apart tonight.“

Click for the full box score.

The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central players celebrate their second straight Class D championship. (Middle) The Jets’ Troy Ekberg works to stay in front of Our Lady’s Andrew Kline.

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.)