On the verge of history: North Central playing games this week to tie, set record winning streak

Don Mattson

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

Now another Upper Peninsula school, 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. Including nine victories this season, North Central has 64 consecutive wins, a streak that began on Dec. 8, 2014.

The Jets will try to equal the record Tuesday night when they host Mid Peninsula, then if they win, break the record on Friday night when they host neighboring Bark River-Harris, which is 9-1 this season.

Flint Northwestern is the only school to challenge Chassell’s hallowed mark, winning 60 in a row before losing on 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.

North Central has won the last two Class D state titles and 64 straight games. This year’s team includes, front row from left, Seth Polfus, Bobby Kleiman, Jason Whitens, Dawson Bilski, Marcus Krachinski and Ryan Plunger; standing, Ben Snyder, Hunter Poupore, coach Adam Mercier, Lucas Dombrowski, Trenton Schaaf and Hunter Riley. Not pictured is Jason Kirschner. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Dennis Grall)

In 1958, Chassell was the first U.P. school to bring a state championship trophy across the Mackinac Bridge, shortly after it opened.

North Central is located in Powers in northern Menominee County, six miles north of Carney-Nadeau High School, which owns the state girls basketball win streak of 78 games, set from 1989-91.

NC coach Adam Mercier said the Jets first looked at the Chassell record after winning a second straight Class D state title last March.

“We wondered if we would be able to do it,” Mercier said last week, a day before making Big Bay de Noc victim No. 64.

The Jets have figuratively sported a huge target on their red jerseys and actually seem comfortable with it.

This is the 1956 Class D state championship winning basketball team from Chassell High School that would go on to win the title the following two years and win 65 games in a row, still the Michigan high school boys record. In the front row from left are Don Mattson, Terry Pokela, Al Morin, Don Jaakkola, Tom Peters and Al Tormala. Top row from left are Jack Bakkila, Phil Sauvola, Ken Tormala, Mike Wisti, Dale Destrampe, John Pyykkonen, Bob WHite, Paul Makela and coach Ed Helakoski. (Photo courtesy Don Mattson)

“They have handled it with maturity and patience,” Mercier said then. “We will get into the historical value after this week.”

The Jets have lost just once in the past four seasons, an 81-79 setback to Cedarville in a Class D tournament quarterfinal in Marquette on March 18, 2014.

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,” the coach said, indicating people have talked about it and coaches wanted the players to respond appropriately.

Their first goal is winning a third straight state title, but the postseason doesn’t begin until March 6, so the immediate focus can be on Chassell’s record.

North Central has not really been challenged this season, a 70-59 victory at Class B Menominee their closest game. The Maroons 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 the 1956 Class D championship game at Michigan State University when the Panthers trailed by 15 points with 3:20 left.

Moving to a stifling full-court press, Chassell scored the final 18 points to beat Portland St. Patrick 71-68.

“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 defensive scheme from Houghton coach John Gaffney, who used it to help the Gremlins win the 1955 Class C state title.

“We played a man-to-man zone. They call it a match-up zone now,” Mattson said. “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 in the streak. “We had size and experience. We were good.”

In 1958, the escape act came against nearby Doelle High School, a game that was moved from Tapiola to Houghton to accomm

odate 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 midcourt) 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 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 and Owosso St. Paul 66-61 in 1958 in state title games. The Panthers’ winning streak ended in the 1958-59 season opener with a one-point loss to Ewen.

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.

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.”