By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – Like kids in every community, future Jackson Northwest athletes grow up dreaming of winning championships.
But there’s something more to say about the opportunity earned by the Mounties with their 56-47 Class B Semifinal win Friday over Michigan Center.
A championship Saturday would be the first in program history. It would be the second in school history, in any sport – joining the Division 2 girls bowling title won in 2013.
“It would be good for our community, because everybody has brought so much support,” Northwest senior Sydney Shafer said. “And the fact that we’ve never done this makes it better because we’re making history.
“We’re hanging numbers – that was our thing, kind’ve – and it’s just surreal. Not many people get to experience what we’re going through right now.”
The Mounties already will hang a few “numbers” – maybe a few 18s on the banners in their gym for winning their first Regional and making their first girls basketball championship game this winter.
They’ll get a chance to add one more against Detroit Country Day in Saturday’s 6:15 p.m. Class B Final at Van Noord Arena.
Northwest (25-1) has put together a nice run in girls basketball with a combined 79-17 record and three District titles moving between Class B and Class A over the last four seasons.
The Mounties fell four points shy of claiming that first Regional title in Class A in 2016, losing to East Lansing by four points in the Regional Final.
“This has been our goal the last four years. This year, this team is special,” senior Ella Bontrager said. “We knew that from the beginning. We’ve taken one game at a time, worked hard on offensive and defensively, and this team play together more than any team too. We want it, every single game, and we don’t want to be done.”
Northwest came out Friday draining shots. Bontrager knocked down two 3-pointers during the game’s first two minutes, and sophomore sister Jozie Bontrager’s 3-pointer two minutes later made the score 13-4.
Jozie Bontrager connected on a pair of 2-pointers during the second quarter to keep Northwest’s lead at 31-22 by halftime.
But Michigan Center, a Class C runner-up twice last decade, had some shooting bottled up for the second half. Despite trailing by 17 during the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Cardinals cut that deficit to seven over the next two minutes in part on 3-pointers by senior Brianna Wolvin, sophomore Morgan Morris and senior Masyn Shannon.
The comeback wasn’t unexpected, as the two schools are 14 miles apart and a number of players know each other from the offseason circuit.
“Every game we’ve played, we seem to allow those runs,” Northwest coach Ryan Carroll said. “I know that’s not a strong trait, but we also then respond.
“These guys are fearless. It’s just another game for them, just another run. We knew Michigan Center was very capable of knocking down shots.”
In the end, Northwest knocked down a few more, especially at the line. The Mounties connected on 13 of 23 free-throw attempts, but Michigan Center was only 7 of 18.
Schafer finished with 21 points, along with 13 rebounds and six steals. Jozie Bontrager had 13 points and 12 rebounds and Ella Bontrager added 11 points. Senior Masyn Shannon had 14 points and seven rebounds to lead Michigan Center (23-3) and was the only senior to see the floor for her team.
The Cardinals finished a combined 43-7 over the last two seasons after going 6-15 in 2015-16. They’ve most recently been in Class C, but moved into Class B this school year.
“It was such a journey for us,” Shannon said. “We were excited every single game. Every game we won in this tournament, we bawled our eyes out because we were so happy. It’s something to be excited about, something to be nervous about – a lifetime experience and something me and the rest of the team will never forget.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Jackson Northwest players celebrate Friday’s Semifinal win over Michigan Center. (Middle) Michigan Center’s Morgan Morris works for position in the post with Jozie Bontrager guarding her.
Traverse City has had a few head football coaches named Kanitz.
But Mike Kanitz has no interest in becoming a head football coach. In fact, no interest in being a head coach of any sport.
So far he’s worked for nine head coaches. He’s seen what it takes to be a head varsity coach and he’ll stay where he is, which is pretty much anywhere there is a high school sporting event.
Kanitz spends his days and nights dedicated to the Traverse City St. Francis student-athletes, staff, administration and Gladiators community. He is the junior varsity girls basketball coach, volleyball game manager, volleyball announcer and volleyball scorekeeper, football press box manager, and the Glads’ soccer game manager. Additionally, as director of basketball operations at St. Francis, he finds himself at the scorer’s table for boys basketball games.
The volleyball, soccer and football duties are performed at every home game. He doesn’t take a paycheck for any of it. If the school does pay for his services, he promptly donates the funds to the source.
The soft-spoken and renowned St. Francis supporter is not the slightest bit interested in getting any recognition for his efforts.
Tonight he’ll run the Thirlby Field press box as the Gladiators host Ogemaw Heights. And, he’s ready for the Glads’ first home volleyball match Sept. 8.
“He is one of those unique people that shies away from the spotlight — he is a pure servant, said Aaron Biggar, St. Francis’ athletic director. “He doesn’t want any accolades or anything like that.”
Kanitz’ father, Hugo Kanitz – who also went by Mike all his life – was the head football coach of Traverse City St. Francis during the 1960s. Another Kanitz, Dutch — not related to the father-son combo —was at the helm of the Traverse City Central High School football program.
Mike Kanitz finds himself regularly receiving phone calls and letters from former players intended for the Kanitz coaches. He has to explain he’s not the deceased Central coach, nor his father. And he’s glad he gets to pass on positive feedback to his father, also a former athletic director for St. Francis.
“My grandmother said, ‘Never call him Hugo – his name is Mike,’” Kanitz said. “Don’t ask me where it came from, but he was Mike his whole life.
“I am junior in most people’s minds,” Kanitz went on. “Traverse City was a small town back then; to have two Coach Kanitz was confusing.”
His father now lives in Traverse City after retiring as a teacher and professor. The son enjoys picking his brain.
“I am blessed to still be able to run stuff by him (because) that’s really where I got my coaching start,” he said. “I used to get calls after coming back to Traverse City and the callers would say, ‘Is this Coach Kanitz?’ and I started to catch on that these were his former students.
“I don’t think my dad ever knew the impact he was having on kids,” Kanitz continued. “I don’t think coaches really know what an impact they have on kids.”
Hearing from his father’s former players helped shape his coaching.
“It made me realize as a coach you have the ability every time you open your mouth to either hurt a kid or help a kid,” he said. “So helping a kid is my desire.”
Officials, media and visiting coaches for many sports have noted Kanitz’ demeanor and contributions. They also know he’ll do anything to make sure they have a good experience at St. Francis.
Among other things, Mike reportedly once became a makeshift tailor when a basketball official showed up without his referee pants. Mostly using safety pins, a borrowed pair of pants went from 2XL to large in time for tip-off.
“Mike Kanitz should have a name tag that says, ‘Nicest Man on the Planet,’” said former St. Francis AD Tom Hardy. “Mike is the perfect representative that you can have for any event at school.
“He greets every team, official, and spectator with such grace and compassion, which leads to a very positive experience for all involved,” Hardy continued. “Mike has volunteered too many hours to count at basketball and soccer games as a game manager and coach.”
Hardy believes all sports fans need to follow Kanitz’ lead.
“Mike Kanitz is the example of how people should treat each other at any athletic event,” he said. “You truly would have to look long and hard to find a more compassionate and caring individual, and I would challenge anyone to find a person that has a negative thing to say about him.”
Barb Becket, a longtime MHSAA official and assignor, has similar views of Kanitz. She’s worked with him while he’s served as a coach, game manager and during community activities through her role with the Grand Traverse YMCA.
“Mike is the go-to guy,” she said. “He is a servant in the true sense of the word.
“Besides being the go-to guy for coaches, admin, and players, Mike also acts as the liaison between the sports officials and the sports participants,” she continued. “Mike handles his responsibilities with grace, humility, common sense, and accountability.”
Kanitz’ favorite sport to play is baseball, but his favorite sport to coach is basketball. After graduating from Alma College where he competed in track & field, he was thrilled to move back to Traverse City to start a family with his wife Marcy, a Traverse City obstetrician.
The couple’s three children graduated from St. Francis, and Kanitz first focused on elementary baseball. He was able to step away from his pharmaceutical career to step in and fill pretty much any need the St. Francis community had.
Kanitz points to his wife’s passion for caring for women as a motivator for him to get more girls involved in sports and receiving the benefits they provide.
“Marcy spent her whole life taking care of women,” he said. “So she sees the side effects of women not being given opportunities.
“So we’ve got to correct that stuff.”
Kanitz’s first job was as a water boy, along with his siblings born to Hugo and Margo Kanitz. If he ever can’t coach or serve in other capacities for the Gladiators, he hopes to return to the very first job he had as a preschooler.
“I am sincere when I say I started as a water boy, and I am going to finish as a water boy,” Kanitz said. “I am very blessed and I am thankful for the life I’ve had here in Traverse City.
“I am thankful for the school allowing me to be a part of it.”
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) Mike Kanitz fills many roles for Traverse City St. Francis including girls junior varsity basketball coach and game manager for a variety of sports including volleyball. (Middle) Kanitz walks the sideline during one of his games leading the JV Gladiators. (Below) Mike Kanitz enjoys his daughter Delin’s Senior Night game with wife Marcy Verplank-Kanitz. (Top photo by Mike Spencer; middle and below photos by Julie English.)