Whitens Leads Jets' Pursuit of Record Run

December 13, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

POWERS – Jason Whitens stands rather nonchalantly, but there is no doubt he is focused on his assignment.

It is not as easy to see his steely resolve in football because of the helmet and distance from which a fan watches Whitens prepare for the next play. It is much easier to see his features in basketball, where fans are almost as close to him as the defender.

In either sport, he scans the defense, then decides the best mode of attack. In both sports, he is efficient and effective, to such a degree that he has helped North Central win back-to-back MHSAA championships in 8-player football and Class D basketball.

The Jets brought a 55-game winning streak into the current basketball season, after extending their 8-player football mark to 26 straight wins. Whitens has been an integral part of each notable run.

He ran for an astounding 359 yards in the football finale as North Central throttled Deckerville 58-21. Deckerville had allowed only 50 points over its previous 12 games. Whitens also passed for 100 yards, but this game his running skills were needed as he averaged 20.7 yards per carry while scoring six touchdowns,

Last week Whitens entered basketball season with a school-record 1,410 points in three seasons, with an outside shot at reaching the year-old Upper Peninsula career mark of 2,178 points owned by Gage Kreski of St. Ignace.

Basically, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior is a threat to beat an opponent in a variety of different ways. That skill set has made Whitens an attractive college recruit in both sports, with interest from Division I and Division II schools such as the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, Central Michigan, Lake Superior State and Grand Valley State.

That attention is understandable since he is a two-time 8-player state Player of the Year from The Associated Press in football and was basketball’s Class D state Player of the Year last season as well. He is also Michigan’s representative for the Wendy’s Heisman Award as a scholar/athlete.

While all of those accolades are fantastic, Whitens remains a down-to-earth senior who has one primary goal as he approaches his final months in high school. Like his teammates, he wants to win another Class D basketball title.

And he spreads the credit around. “The surrounding cast has been phenomenal,” Whitens said, referring to teammates, family, friends and coaches.

“That has prepared me and my teammates for what we have done, how all of this has been given to us so we could perform. The best part of it has been all of us being together.”

That togetherness began before this group of players was born. Gerald Whitens and Tim Bilski, dads to senior teammates Jason and Dawson, played on North Central’s 1984 Class D championship basketball team and were part of a 33-game winning streak that ended in the 1985 Semifinals.

“Sports bring people together; you make friends and create bonds,” said Jason Whitens. Noting what helps make it fun, he added, “We don’t talk about the game as much as we talk about the guys.”

Many of these Jets have been playing backyard games together since pre-school days, with only the rewards changing.

“When we were younger, we all dreamt of this and knew we could do it,” Whitens said in a recent interview at school. “That is why it is not a shock to do it. Now we are basking in it, we’re just going to enjoy it and say ‘that was fun.’”

He recalled traveling various distances to 3-on-3 tournaments as youngsters. “That is what separates us from other schools,” he said. “We’ve played together for so long we know where each other is and how each other plays.”

And did we mention their highly competitive spirit?

“You will never meet a more competitive group than us,” said Whitens. “We want to win; that is our number one goal (in ping pong or anything). We always want to one-up each other, but there is no ill will because you beat someone. We always want to beat each other.

“We are always competing; there is no backing down from a challenge.”

North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who officiates basketball with Gerald Whitens, touched on that competitive level about his quarterback.

“The guy competes every time he is on the floor, on the field, on the diamond, every minute he is out there. If you want him to lie down, then take him out of the game,” Bellefeuil said.

“His dad is a pretty good competitor; his mom (Faye) is a competitor as well.”

His mother is a Granquist, and that family has been very athletically accomplished at North Central. Tom Granquist, Jason’s uncle, held the school basketball scoring record that Whitens broke last year. His cousin, Rob Granquist, was an all-star quarterback and cager just ahead of Whitens, and is No. 3 on the school’s basketball point chart.

“As a group, they all have a competitive spirit,” said Bellefeuil.

Jason Whitens, noting how it was important to keep up and surpass his relatives, said “there was always something to strive for, something you tried to do better. I was always motivated. I never just settled on doing something today or tomorrow.

“It is something I had to get intrigued about myself. It was second nature. I was always around it, I wanted to be a part of it. It just inspired me to be the best I could be,” Whitens said.

“Hopefully I can set an example and make (younger relatives) better than me. That would be selfish if I didn’t want that for my family.”

That competitive spirit and deep will to win may have reached a notable mark when Whitens was a freshman.

Playing in the basketball Class D Quarterfinal in Marquette, Whitens missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw set with no time left that sealed an 81-79 loss to Cedarville. That was the last time the Jets have lost on the hardwood.

A basket by Whitens at the buzzer was denied after the officials conferred and decided he had to shoot free throws.

“That was a huge impact as a basketball player and as a human being, as a person,” Whitens said in reflection. “I look at basketball in a whole new perspective now. It is not life or death. When I’m around family and friends, that is real.

“That (situation) helped set the bar. I didn’t want to feel or be put in a position where I would let my team down. I matured a lot from that point. I realized you can’t always play perfect. You are always going to make mistakes. That did inspire me to become better.”

The Jets have won 57 straight games since that loss. Surpassing the mark of 65 straight wins set by Chassell from 1956-58 “is in the back of our mind. It is a process, and we’re taking one game at a time. The most important thing is having fun and being prepared as the ride goes along,” Whitens said. “It is hard to do it yourself. It is great to do it together as one.”

Next up is Carney-Nadeau on Thursday, with Menominee providing a possible substantial challenge Monday.

He is also going through his senior season pondering his future in sports. “Where to go and what to play (football or basketball), that is mixed up right now. What (sport) to commit to and who to commit to. I’m not really close deciding where to go or what sport to play,” he said.

“It is a wild, crazy and confusing ride.”

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) Jason Whitens high fives during last season’s post-basketball championship celebration at Powers North Central High School. (Middle) Whitens looks for an opening during the Class D Final win over Waterford Our Lady. (Below) Whitens runs away from a Deckerville defender during last month’s 8-Player Football Final. (Top photo by Paul Gerard; bottom photo by Dennis Grall.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

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 MHSAA.com 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.)