NEGAUNEE After the Forest Park Trojans and North Central Jets were done duking it out Wednesday night for the rights to the Class D regional title, no one in the building wondered whether or not if the two teams were on the right stage. They knew.
After the physical battle that ensued over the course of 32 minutes, neither team left a doubt in anyone's mind. North Central just pushed ahead enough to claim a 59-50 victory and crown themselves champions for the first time in 28 years.
With the triumph, the Jets advance to the MHSAA state quarterfinal to play Cedarville, Tuesday night at Marquette. Cedarville defeated Hillman 92-85 at Pellston Wednesday night.
Justin Marietti | Daily Press
The North Central Jets raise their first regional championship trophy in 28 years after defeating Forest Park 59-50 Wednesday night at Negaunee.
"I feel we're battle-tested right now," said Jets coach Adam Mercier. "We've had to play some tough teams in the district and our conference is loaded this year, so I feel as though we're playing up to our competition, and our competition is really good right now."
The Trojans and the Jets exchanged blows to begin the game, but North Central closed out the first quarter on a 8-3 run led by Trevor Ekberg to give them a 20-15 advantage.
However, the second quarter was all Forest Park, as Derek Aberly put up 10 points and the Trojans strutted into halftime with a 32-28 lead after outscoring North Central 17-8.
Forest Park 15 17 7 11 50
North Central 20 8 17 14 59
FOREST PARK Snell 7, Johnson 8, Tomasik 2, Graff 3, Hilberg 5, Aberly 22, Carlson 3; FT: 6-11; F: 16; Fouled out: Graff; 3-point field goals: Snell, Johnson 2, Hilberg.
NORTH CENTRAL Polfus 7, R. Granquist 10, J. Granquist 3, Vincent 20, Martin 6, Ekberg 13; FT: 10-15; F: 12; Fouled out: none; 3-point field goals: Polfus 2, J. Granquist, Vincent, Ekberg.
"It's their energy," said Trojans coach Chris Nocerini. "When this team plays with confidence, they are a tough team to beat. We tell them, take care of the ball, play tough defense, and hit your free throws, and you will be around in the last three minutes of the game. And they were tonight."
North Central certainly responded in the third quarter. If Forest Park had taken them out of their comfort zone in the second quarter, then they returned the favor to open the second half, outscoring the Trojans 17-7 and bringing their offense to a virtual standstill.
After the Jets reclaimed the lead, Tyler Polfus knocked down a pair of huge triples back to back that solidified the comeback.
"It really fired the team up," Polfus said. "I had a minor injury in the first quarter, but I didn't really feel anything after I hit those threes. It was a big momentum shift."
Although they have had to battle before in this playoff run, Mercier was especially pleased with the way his team was able to get back to playing their style of basketball when it mattered most.
"We got the ball into the right position on offense and we were effective," Mercier said, "and we got back on defense and covered their shooters. Those two things saved us in the third quarter,
The Jets (22-3) were tested yet again in the fourth quarter. Ekberg extended North Central's lead with a triple to make it 48-41, but Forest Park came back to score the next five points, and all of a sudden it was a two-point game. However, the Jets responded as Caleb Martin and Travis Vincent knocked down some big shots inside to push them back ahead.
Forest Park (15-9) would answer when Jeff Johnson hit a triple to bring the Trojans back within three points. But it would turn out to be the last field goal they would make, and North Central rode out the final seconds, claiming the win and bringing back its first regional trophy since 1985.
"The community had great support for us tonight," Mercier said. "I'm happy for everyone, for the team and for our fans; they've been waiting for this for a long time, so thank you."
Vincent led the Jets with 20 points, while Aberly was the game's leading scorer with 22.
"They say it's tough to beat a team three times, but not when you are better than they are," Vincent said. "We came out tonight and stuck to our game plan."
Nocerini said he is extremely proud of his kids, but also had nothing but good things to say about his opponent.
"Give North Central credit," Nocerini said. "Vincent did a great job defensively, and he shut Derek (Aberly) down in the second half, and he hit some great shots in the post. I wish them the best of luck. They are great representatives of our conference."