ESCANABA—After his team’s loss to North Central at the end of the season, Forest Park boys Coach Chris Nocerini said he just wanted one more shot at the Jets.
His dream came true at the regional tournament here March 12, and it nearly became North Central’s worst nightmare. The teams battled for four hard-fought quarters before the unbeaten Jets eked out a 58-55 overtime win.
The Jets move on to this week’s quarterfinal game against Cedarville, while Forest Park wraps up a 20-4 season. Three of those four losses were to that other team in red and black, the one from Powers.
But their third encounter was much different from the first two (63-50 and 76-64). “My team improved every time and closed the gap,” the coach said. “They showed it last night again.
“We were just as good as North Central at the end of the season,” he said, “and nobody can take that from us.”
FP reached the finals by defeating Lake Linden-Hubbell 75-60 on March 10, taking command of the game just before and just after halftime.
Three early baskets from Daniel Nocerini got FP away to an early 13-6 lead before the Lakes fired back with a 11-2 run. Tyler Roose fired in three straight triples for Lake Linden and had 11 points in the quarter.
The Lakes briefly led at the end of the first quarter, but Jeff Johnson’s 3-pointer quickly got the lead back—for good, as it turned out. FP ended the first half with two baskets by Nocerini and one by Raymond Tomasik to lead 40-34. And they were just getting started.
The Lakes started the second half slowly, and FP made them pay. Fast breaks by Lee Graff and Nocerini plus Austin Carlson’s basket on an inbounds pass built up a 46-35 lead. Lake Linden got its offense ignited, but FP never let the Lakes closer than seven after that.
Both Graff and Carlson scored eight for FP in the third quarter. Later, Graff added seven more during a 9-2 rally that put FP ahead 65-51 early in the fourth quarter.
Carlson and Nocerini both finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. Graff added 15 points and six boards. Nocerini earned seven assists and four steals, and Johnson added six assists.
The Trojans shot 51% (31 of 61) from the floor and 62% (10 of 16) on free throws. Lake Linden shot 34%. Roose led the Lakes with 21 points (four threes) and Brett Poissant scored 17.
Trojans 17 23 20 15 -- 75
Lakes 15 19 15 11 -- 60
Thirty-five minutes of intense basketball had seen eight lead changes and eight ties. The regional title game between Forest Park and North Central came down to one big play.
With a minute left in overtime and the score knotted 53-53, North Central’s Trevor Ekberg got the ball above the top of the free throw circle, with a Trojan defender moving in. Ekberg tossed his head, the FP player veered to the side, and Ekberg straightened up and fired a three. Bang!
That put the Jets up 56-53 with 50 seconds left. FP scored seconds later but then had to foul, and Rob Granquist’s free throws made it 58-55. Two desperation three-point tries wouldn’t go, and the horn sounded.
That’s how a great game and a great season ended.
North Central battled Munising into overtime in the semifinals. Two nights later, the Jets found themselves in a war with the Trojans. The teams traded early runs in the first quarter, it was close for most of the second, and halftime came with the Jets ahead 22-20.
Neither team could break away—neither led by more than five points all night. The Jets led nearly all the third quarter, but Austin Snell’s 3-pointer put the Trojans ahead 35-34 early in the fourth. The Jets rallied 6-0 to go back ahead, but two Carlson baskets and another Snell three gave FP a 44-42 lead with 2:40 left.
But Carlson, who had limited Ekberg to free throws in the second half after a 16-point first half, was called for his fourth and fifth fouls a minute apart and left with 1:28 to play.
After Jets free throws tied it, Graff and Travis Vincent traded three-point plays—47-47 with 51 seconds left. Next, a series of time-outs, non-calls, an offensive foul on Johnson that had FP coaches howling—but no more scoring. On to overtime.
After NC’s Vincent scored off an offensive rebound, FP missed several shots from the floor and the Jets missed a pair of free throw tries. FP’s Nocerini, NC’s Vincent and FP’s Graff all went 2 for 2 at the line. Now it’s 53-53 with a minute left.
That’s when Ekberg got the ball near the top and looked for a shot.
Carlson was the Trojans’ top scorer with 16 points. Graff had 13, followed by Snell (9), Johnson (8) and Nocerini (7). Carlson led with 11 rebounds (six on offense), and Nocerini had eight. Graff’s five assists and five steals led both categories.
For the Jets, Ekberg scored 25 points, and Vincent had 11, followed by Caleb Martin (9) and Granquist (8). Ekberg also had 14 rebounds.
Counting last year’s regional title game (another Jets win), this was the teams’ fourth battle in the last year. The Skyline Conference powers know each other well and made adjustments for their final encounter of the season. “Obviously they were all good adjustments,” said Nocerini, “because we went to overtime.”
After the game, the Trojans’ coach was especially mourning the loss of his senior guards, Snell and Johnson, who had been on the varsity all four years—the loss to the Jets was their final game. “That’s harder than the loss to me.”
But the Trojans should have plenty of firepower coming back next winter: Graff, Carlson, Nocerini, Kam Krajewski, plus some hot shots from Dave Graff’s JV team.
“I like the development of our team,” Coach Nocerini said. “There’s a nice core coming back for next season.
“We have a nice junior class and a really good sophomore class behind them, full of solid players.” And the returnees will be back, a year older and wiser and bigger.
“It’s been a long journey—but we’re not done yet.”
Jets 10 12 12 15 9 -- 58
Trojans 13 7 12 17 6 -- 55