Powers North Central rides streak with selfless Whitens

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Powers North Central’s last lost a basketball game March 18, 2014.

Its last loss in football, meanwhile, was Oct. 17, 2014.

So, we just had to ask.

Jason Whitens, when was the last time you lost at anything?

“Oh, I think I lost a bet at breakfast this morning,” the high school senior from the Upper Peninsula said Wednesday, with a laugh. “That was rough.

“You know that bottle-flipping, water-bottle (challenge)? I lost in that this morning. That wasn’t fun.”

Of course it wasn’t. After all, Whitens isn’t accustomed to losing, ever, at anything, even something as trivial as trying to execute the perfect counter-top landing for a battle of Aquafina.

The Powers North Central football and basketball standout hasn’t lost a game in either since his sophomore year (football), and he hasn’t lost in basketball since his freshman year. The Mr. Basketball candidate and his basketball teammates take that state-record 81-game winning streak into Thursday night’s Class D semifinal against Southfield Christian at Breslin Center.

The winner advances to Saturday’s championship game, against either Lansing Christian or Buckley.

Powers North Central, in little old Powers — population, 400-ish, located at least three hours closer to Milwaukee than East Lansing — has won the last two Class D state championships.

Southfield Christian won the the three before that, before moving up to Class C for two years, and back down to Class D this year.

If anyone’s sweating the streak, they’re not telling.

“It’s not really anything,” Whitens said of the historic basketball run, which continued with a 74-61 victory over Hillman in the quarterfinals Tuesday in Sault Ste. Marie. “Coach (Adam Mercier) always tells us, ‘We’re playing with house money.’

“Anything after that, it’s just a bonus.”

The next level

Whitens, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder, was the quarterback of the football team at Powers North Central (enrollment, barely 100) that won the past two eight-player state championships.

And he’s been a four-year starter on the basketball team, which has a 106-1 record with him on the team. The lone loss, a two-point heartbreaker in the quarterfinals as a freshman.

“I’ve known him since he was born, basically,” said Mercier, a longtime family friend of the Whitens and Jason’s dad, Gerald, a former basketball coach at Powers North Central. “I’ve seen him grow up as a player. I started coaching 11 years ago, and Jason was in my first Saturday morning basketball group.

“We knew he was gonna be a special player, just because of his personality and his enthusiasm.

“It doesn’t hurt being 6-5, 210 either. But even if he was 5-10 and 110, he would’ve been a great player.”

Whitens is averaging 23 points this season, and senior Dawson Bilski averages 20.

Bilski has signed to play at Michigan Tech, while Whitens — who prefers basketball to football — hasn’t made up his mind on his future, yet.

He has preferred walk-on opportunities at Central Michigan and Michigan State, the latter with a head coach, in Tom Izzo, who’s also from the Upper Peninsula.

In fact, during a visit to East Lansing two weeks ago, Whitens and Izzo talked. Izzo’s roommate in college has sons who attended Powers North Central.

“That’d be pretty exciting,” Whitens said of heading to Michigan State.

Colgate is in the mix, and Whitens also has several Division II full-ride offers, particular from Michigan Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools. And recently, Division I Wisconsin-Green Bay hopped into the mix. Whitens has a visit planned after the season is over.

Then, he’ll have a decision to make, before he’s on to the next sport.

He’s also gonna give high school baseball a shot this spring — even though the program only is three years old, and is highly unlikely to win every game, like Whitens, frankly, has become accustomed to.

“We should be pretty good,” said Whitens, who also used to run track. “Dawson is a really good pitcher.”

For now, though, the focus is on at least one more high school basketball game, and ideally two.

The Powers North Central team was making its way downstate Wednesday, stopping in Mount Pleasant for the night. It couldn’t get a hotel in East Lansing, because they were all booked two weeks out.

Which begs the question — a team that hasn’t lost a game in the last three seasons couldn’t book in advance?

“Oh, no,” Mercier said, laughing. “That would’ve been bad juju.”

Teammates first

At Powers North Central (26-0), Whitens may be the star athlete — a once-in-a-generation type for a school so small, really — but you wouldn’t know it by talking to him.

He has a genuine affection for his teammates, and it comes across loud and clear over the phone, where you get the sense his teammates are having some fun with him while he’s trying to do an interview.

There’s clearly a special bond among the Powers North Central athletes, and maybe it’s because of the small-town, everybody-knows-everybody vibe. The team also has a whole lot of down time together, from hour-or-more bus rides during the regular season, to the road-trip-like playoff runs. They departed the Powers/Spalding/Hermansville area at 8 Tuesday morning for their quarterfinal in the Soo, then continued south to Mount Pleasant, and if all goes right, they won’t return home until Sunday or so.

So while so many in the media may want to talk about Whitens, he likes to defer. It comes naturally to him.

“Always man, it’s easy,” he said. “When you get the vibe of the guys I’m with, it’s easy to deflect. You want the best for them. It’s easy to deflect when you care so much about them.”

Even the inclusion among the Mr. Basketball finalists — it was an appreciated nod, even though he never was a threat to win; the award went to Michigan-bound Isaiah Livers of Kalamazoo Central — was a credit to his teammates, he said.

“It really shows,” said Whitens, “how good I’m surrounded by talent.”

Southfield Christan (21-5) has a whole lot of talent, too, of course — and is even the favorite in Thursday’s Class D semifinal, at least according to Mercier. If Powers North Central is the New England Patriots of Class D hoops, then Southfield Christian is the New York Yankees.

The losses are few and far between, and for the selfless Whitens, even more so — minus the occasional water-bottle challenge.

“For a Class D team to have a player as good as Jason, he’d (usually be) averaging 30-35 points and other players around him would just kind of be pieces to a puzzle, but very small pieces,” Mercier said. “Jason has taken less to receive more. And he has no regrets when it comes to that.

“He’d much rather have team success.”