North Central taking it all in

Jets’ seniors culminate 108-1 careers with 3rd straight MHSAA?state title

EAST LANSING — A state basketball three-peat. A current win streak that is the nation’s longest at 83 straight.

That is what the North Central Jets accomplished at Michigan State University on Saturday morning by defeating unbeaten Buckley 78-69 for the Class D boys basketball state championship.

Amazing! Incomprehensible! Magnificent! Brilliant! Incredible!

Use whatever adjective you wish, and it is still difficult to understand and appreciate what this tiny Menominee County school has done over the past three years. It is simply beyond belief.

With just 115 students, the Jets finished off three straight unbeaten seasons with their third consecutive state title. Just a few months earlier, some of these same players helped the football team repeat as eight-player state champion with 26 wins in a row.

Senior Marcus Krachinski summed it up outside the Jets’ locker room in the Breslin Center here Saturday.

“83-0 in basketball, 26-0 in football. That is something not too many people get to experience. It is amazing,” he said, the wonderment of it all evident in his brief summation.

Five seniors started the title game, and one of them, Jason Whitens, started every game of the 83 straight victories. In fact, Whitens has started every game of his four-year career. He owns the state record for most games played and won in four seasons as the Jets have compiled a stunning 108-1 record.

Think about it. The word “lose” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Jets.

“No one wants to lose in life,” said third-year senior starter Dawson Bilski, who missed two games this season with a sprained ankle. “We don’t want to lose.”

Whitens will never forget that 81-79 quarterfinal loss to Cedarville on March 18, 2014, in Marquette. With no time on the clock, he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 bonus free throw that confirmed the only setback of his career.

“That molded me as a player and as a person,” he said after Saturday’s finale ended his unbelievable career. “This hasn’t even sunk in yet. This has been my whole life, my pride and joy.”

Losing was staring at the Jets late in the title game, when Buckley used a 13-3 run to draw within 68-65 with 2:40 left. But North Central ended that threat by scoring eight straight points for a 76-65 lead with 43 seconds to go.

“We came together, collected ourselves and weathered the storm,” Krachinski said.

That was not as easy as he makes it sound. On Thursday, the Jets had a bigger storm to weather in the semifinals, overcoming No. 2-ranked Southfield Christian 84-83 in double overtime on a basket by Seth Polfus with point 0.2 of a second remaining.

Buoyed by a day off Friday without practice, the Jets scorched Buckley with a monstrous first quarter that included making 15 straight shots. The inevitable letdown hit the Jets over the next two periods before they rallied back.

“If we had to play another game, it would be difficult for us,” Krachinski said.

Polfus, speaking upstairs at the Breslin Center Saturday as family and fans gathered for autographs and pictures, said the effects of that Southfield Christian game were still being felt after the title game.

“That felt like the championship game,” he said of facing the talented Eagles. “It was hard to focus (today). We were still totally in awe of what we did. It set in this morning that we had one more game. This is just icing on the cake.”

Bilski got the Jets soaring Saturday, scoring 18 points in the first quarter by making each of his seven field goal attempts. The Jets set a tourney record with 38 points in that period.

“It is like a shark in the lake, finding fresh fish to go after and seeing fresh blood in the water,” Bilski said of his teammates feeding off his frenzied start. “We saw a little blood in the water.”

Senior Bobby Kleiman, another prime contributor, said North Central’s amazing success “starts with our personalities, our mentality. We go into every game with the mentality of going in as a team. That is what separates us from other teams.

“Growing up, sports was our life. We didn’t do much else. It was always something physical. We were just competing with each other.”

Kleiman said the Jets enjoyed getting a locker room visit from long-time Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a native of Iron Mountain, after the game Saturday.

“He said, as the years go on, it will only get better and better, there will be more and more precious memories. You are going to love those memories.

“You will have so many memories. Take it all in and in-take. Just live in the moment right now and make the most of it.”

As they met with their biggest supporters in the Breslin concourse, there was no doubt they were enjoying the moment to the nth degree.