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State champion twice

Bob Whitens coached, played with basketball powers

September 2, 2012
By JOHN VRANCIC - Escanaba Daily Press , The Daily News

ESCANABA - Not everyone gets a chance to coach a team to a state championship.

Bob Whitens of Hermansville, however, was able to do just that in 1984 by guiding the North Central boys to their first Class D title.

Whitens, who also played on a Class E state championship team at Hermansville in 1957, was recently rewarded for his efforts with induction into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame.

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"I was pretty much shocked about that one," said Whitens. "I found out about it Friday and read it in the paper Saturday. This is certainly a nice surprise."

In 1984, North Central gained its state title berth by rallying past Lansing Christian in the semifinals.

"That was the game we felt like we were playing pretty good basketball," said Whitens. "We were down by 13 points right before halftime. That was gut-check time. Rick Hansen's performance in the fourth quarter was phenomenal. He scored nearly all our points in that quarter and the one (bucket) to put us up by a point with 10 seconds to go. That was a springboard game. That got our kids feeling a lot more confident."

Once the Jets learned they were playing East Catholic, they decided their best bet was to slow the pace of the game.

"The interesting thing is we played a style where we scored a lot of points," said Whitens. "We were up and down the floor and put up a lot of shots during the year. When we sat down and looked at East Catholic, we felt if we did that against them we were probably going to lose. We decided we would have to play a slowdown, deliberate type of game. To have the discipline our kids had to play that type of game was a real tribute to them. Our point guard Scott Johnson was an excellent ballhandler and did a great job controlling the tempo."

The previous summer, Whitens took the team to a summer camp at Michigan Tech where it played against the best teams in the U.P.

"We ended up playing 15-16 games and went undefeated," said Whitens. "That's when I think the kids realized they could play against those kinds of teams. The following season was a benchmark season for North Central, putting us on the map. A lot of things came together. In a small school setting, you get a group like this that comes through every once in a while. We could tell these kids had a little something extra."

The following season, the Jets went undefeated until falling to Bridgman in the state semifinals.

"Our team had a big target on its back that year," said Whitens. "Rodney Wells and Gerald Whitens being selected (Class D) first team, all-state I think says a lot about the kind of players we had. We were 50-4 during that two-year period, which was a pretty remarkable run for those kids.

"I think our game against Bridgman was a case where being undefeated and going that far started to show. We made some mental mistakes and missed some shots that were uncharacteristic of our team. Bridgman was a good ball club, yet we probably played teams that were just as good in the U.P."

When Whitens took over the reigns in 1978, it appeared he'd be coaching against Norway and his high school coach Don Hill.

"After I found out I was going to be coaching at North central, coach Hill called me and said 'you're going to be sitting across the bench from me,'" said Whitens. "'I'm going to have to teach you a few things. Unfortunately, coach Hill passed away that spring and I never had a chance to coach against him.

"What I tried to take from coaching, the biggest percentage of it came from what I learned from Don Hill. He always told me 'the biggest thing you can do when you're coaching at a small school is don't try to fit the kids into your style. Evaluate your personnel and adjust your style to your individual players' best capabilities.'"

In 1957, Whitens played on the Class E state championship team which beat Michigamme 77-51 for the title under Hill, also a Hall of Fame member.

"We had a couple good years," he said. "We did well in my junior and senior years. We lost to Trout Creek in the title game in 1956 and the following year we finished 21-1. The championship game (in 1957) was played in the Holy Name gym. We had control of that game pretty much from the start. We shot the ball often and it was going in. When you do that, you can put points up in a hurry.

"As a Class E school we didn't have an opportunity to compete with downstate teams. We felt we were slighted, but that's the way the state decided it would be at that time."

Playing for Hill is what Whitens says he remembers most about high school days.

"He came to Hermansville when I was in junior high,"Whitens added. "I probably learned more about basketball from coach Hill than any other source. He had some simple philosophies that I really adhered to. The one I remember the most is 'you win by scoring more points than the other team. Take more shots, eliminate turnovers and hit the boards hard.'"

How did cagers practice on their own at that time?

"We didn't have summer camps and summer programs," said Whitens. "We learned how to shoot by playing in our backyard. We had a hoop on the garage and a gravel driveway. I learned how to be a pretty good shooter and that was my job on the team."

Whitens continued to coach through the 1998-99 season. Under his guidance, the Jets were selected U.P. Class D Team of the Year in 1993 and reached the regional finals in 1994 where they fell to state finalist Superior Central.

He also coached some girls' basketball and track during his tenure.

Whitens played high school baseball at Hermansville and American Legion ball at Powers-Spalding, pitching two years for both teams.

He also played several years in the Wishigan League at Birch Creek, which earned a league title in 1968, and was a manager/player when Hermansville had a team in the early 1970s.

"We had some players come down from Iron Mountain and play for us at Hermansville," said Whitens.

Among them was former Detroit Lions' and San Francisco 49ers' head coach and Green Bay Packers' quarterback coach Steve Mariucci, who played shortstop at Hermansville for a year.



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