Column: Dramatic end to North Central’s run

MARQUETTE – There were a lot of possessions in Tuesday night’s Class D state quarterfinal. But the focus will be on one of them.

One official called Jason Whitens’ last-ditch attempt good, one waved it off. The officials conferred, North Central head coach Adam Mercier pleaded his case. The Jets waited in nervous anticipation, and after it was all sorted out, Whitens was put in an impossible situation.

The greatest free throw shooters would be hard pressed to come through in the situation that Whitens found himself in.

Instead of making the tying basket to force overtime and stepping to the line for the and-one to win the game, the court was cleared and Whitens had to make two shots, with no time on the clock.

A lot will be made of the fact that Whitens is a freshman guard, but the truth is any senior in the Upper Peninsula would be sweating that situation out.

And Whitens shouldn’t have had to. He shouldn’t have been the one absorbing North Central’s loss, taking it all on his shoulders.

“He’s stepped up for us in big game situations,” said North Central head coach Adam Mercier. “He wants to be in this position again, the next time the ball goes up. Jason will bounce back. He’ll have a moment to do the same thing the next time out. I’ll take him over any freshman in the U.P.

“Next time it happens, you’ll see different results.”

It never really amounts to one play though. If Whitens’ shot had counted and the and-one to win the game goes in, and the Jets won, sure everyone would say, that was the play that won it. But that wouldn’t really be the whole story either. It’s just the lasting memory, the one that sticks out above the many other possessions in a thrilling whale of a game.

Whitens, lest we forget, came in with a hurt hip and still managed 20 points, unleashing his usual array of moves to get inside frequently. He was the spark that got the Jets back in the game.

Rob Granquist was, and likely still is battling pneumonia, but at times, he looked like the Jets best player, muscleing in for some big time buckets.

Travis Vincent looked like the Central U.P. and Skyline conferences MVP, making his home on the glass, hitting putbacks and generating second-chance opportunities.

All of that just wasn’t quite enough to stave off Joey Duncan and Dan Stenback, who staked the Trojans out to a big lead early.

“We played great tonight,” said Mercier. “Cedarville just played better, especially at the start of the game. Last year, we played better than them in the first quarter and we ended up winning the game.”

The Jets wanted this game. The fire still burned from their trip to the Breslin last year when they lost to Wyoming Tri-Unity in the state semifinal. It was motivation to return to play better.

The Jets likely faced a tougher road to Breslin than any other Class D school in the state. They had to face Carney-Nadeau, Munising, Forest Park and Cedarville in consecutive games. All four were ranked in the final UPSSA poll, and three of the four were ranked in the final Associated Press poll.

North Central had to win two overtime games against Munising and Forest Park just to have this opportunity, and then went right down to the wire for a third consecutive game against the Trojans.

You can live on the edge for a while and be fortunate, but eventually, it catches up to you.

But in the end, this senior group that includes Vincent, Ekberg, Josh Granquist, Tyler Polfus, Zach Ryan and Eric Prestay still accomplished a great deal.

“These seniors have won three district titles, two regional titles, they’ve made a final four,” said Mericer. “Like I told them, this loss isn’t the worst thing that will happen to them in life, and winning the game isn’t the best thing that will happen to them in life. They need to hold their heads up high and move on to the next chapter of their life.”

This isn’t the end of North Central’s run. Whitens has three more years ahead of him, big man Caleb Martin will return as a junior next season, and a host of talent from an undefeated jayvee team will replenish the ranks.

I suspect that the expecations at North Central won’t take a dip, and they’ll be right back at it, with a renewed hunger next season.