The pressure increased as the wins mounted. But Powers North Central’s boys basketball has learned to take its juggernaut status in stride.
They’re used to being every team’s target, by now.
North Central, an Upper Peninsula school with an enrollment of 115 students, holds the nation’s longest winning streak at 81 games. The run, an MHSAA record for boys and girls basketball, includes the Jets’ 74-61 win over Hillman in Tuesday’s Class D quarterfinals.
North Central (26-0) hasn’t lost since 2014, and will continue its quest for its third consecutive state championship when it faces Southfield Christian in Thursday’s semifinals at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.
“The amount of pressure that’s been on these kids the past few years and how they’ve handled it is what I’m most proud of as I look back at what we’ve accomplished,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said. “They take everything in stride and don’t think too much about themselves. They keep it grounded, for the most part, and they just enjoy themselves. As a coach, that’s what you’re hoping for, and they’ve done a great job of it, so I’m proud.”
An examination of North Central’s best player is necessary to understand how the streak began. Only two free throws separated it from being much longer .
Jason Whitens still thrives off that pain.
Whitens, a 6-foot-5 senior point guard and Mr. Basketball finalist, was a starting freshman in 2013-14, aiding a team that returned three seniors and a junior from the previous season’s semifinal team. The Jets were 25-0 entering the quarterfinal against Cedarville.
“Returning all those guys and adding myself, we were highly ranked and expected to go back to the semis,” Whitens said. “Then we got to the quarterfinal game and played a good Cedarville team.”
The final 10 seconds didn’t go as planned. North Central trailed, 81-79, when Whitens made a put-back at the buzzer and was fouled. It appeared he tied the score and had a chance to win it at the free-throw line. Instead, the referees called the foul on the floor and took the two points off the scoreboard. Time had expired, and the Jets needed Whitens to make the shots in the bonus to force overtime.
“It was at the buzzer, so I was there by myself on the free-throw line with no time left on the clock, and I was a freshman,” Whitens said. “I missed the front end of the one-and-one, and we ended up losing by two points. Really, I look at that as a positive now, seeing how far I’ve come from that year. My sophomore year, I didn’t want to have that feeling again, so it only made me better as a player. As a person who suffered a defeat like that, it only made me come back stronger.”
North Powers was recognized as the active holder of the nation’s longest win streak this season. Federal Way (Wash.) and Chino Hills (Calif.) were said to have the longest runs when their 63-game streaks ended in February. But by then, the Jets already had won 68 straight games. A few weeks earlier, in January, North Powers set the state record with their 66th consecutive victory, breaking Chassell’s mark from Feb. 1956-Nov. 1958.
Passaic High (N.J.) set the nation’s all-time streak at 159 from 1919-1925.
Whitens engineered the Jets’ run.
He finished third out of six finalists in voting on Monday for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award, given to the state’s top senior player. He averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.1 steals per game leading into Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Hillman.
During the regional championship last week, he set an MHSAA record by playing in his 106th career game. He’s 106-1 in four seasons with the Jets, and doubled as the quarterback on the school’s back-to-back 8-man football state championship teams the past two seasons.
Whitens left that program with an active 26-game winning streak, rushing for 352 yards and six touchdowns in the state final.
“In a public school like ours, genetics goes peaks and valleys,” Mercier said. “We won’t have another Jason Whitens in our school ever again. In public schools, that doesn’t happen, so you have to take advantage of the players you have because you’re not going to go out and get players or find players in the rough. We are who we are.
“For us to have Jason in our program for these past years, it’s been a blessing and once again, it’s a great story for a small-town kid.”
Whitens’ supporting cast during the basketball streak includes seniors Dawson Bilski and Bobby Kleiman.
All three of their dads played on the North Central team that won a state championship in 1983-84, a squad Mercier said enjoyed “probably the most successful two-year stretch of boys basketball this school has had before these guys came along.”
Gerald Whitens, Jason’s father, was a junior on the 1983-84 championship team. As a senior in 1984-85, the Jets went undefeated in the regular season but lost to Bridgman in the semifinal.
Those teams played a similar style of basketball to this era’s team: Both ran the floor, played hard full-court defense, excelled using a 2-1-2 defensive trap and scored on its opponents as frequently as possible.
“The correlation between our team and their team is phenomenal,” said Gerald, who stepped down as Jets’ coach in 2003. “We both played a very high-paced, fun and exciting brand of basketball and when you have those combinations, and you have a $5 ticket, you’re going to get your money’s worth.”
Gerald said Powers, a town of just over 400 residents, practically shuts down when the Jets play basketball and football games on Tuesday and Friday nights. He even believes North Central has more fans at away games than the home teams.
That’s the life of a juggernaut.