Mass Rockets set 1st winning streak record
MASS CITY — With all the attention this season on North Central High’s attempt to break the Michigan prep boys basketball consecutive win record held by Chassell, an earlier mark has all but been forgotten.
That was a 59-game win streak established by Mass-Greenland High in the late 1940s.
The Rockets (M-G’s nickname) set the record which was broken by Chassell in the 1957-58 season.
But more on that later in this story.
Basketball was always popular in the small Ontonagon County town. But it wasn’t until a new teacher from Indiana arrived that things changed.
The late John Wilson already had a basketball background in the Hoosier state as a player and a coach.
Wilson introduced a fast-breaking brand of basketball, according to the late Ernie Toivonen.
“Other schools in the Upper Peninsula weren’t used to that kind of basketball,” said Toivonen, a member of the 1946-47 squad. “It caught them off guard.”
Mass went undefeated in 1946 and 1947, but didn’t go downstate because U.P. teams didn’t participate in the state tournament at the time.
In their first shot at downstate competition in the 1947-48 campaign, the Rockets made the most of their chance.
They won the Class D regional title by defeating Negaunee St. Paul by a 68-50 count. Roy Luttinen, one of the stars on the team, notched 35 points in the victory.
Making their first boat trip below the straits of Mackinac (there was no bridge at the time). Mass scored an easy 77-34 win over Kingsley in the state quarterfinals.
That was followed by a 79-51 rout of Merrill in the semifinals as Luttinen and Carl Wertanen showed the way.
A tall Bridgman team was the final hurdle, but Mass earned a 55-45 win.
“They (Bridgman) were taller than us,” Luttinen said years later. “But we used our speed and defense to win the game.”
The finals win gave the Rockets a 47-game win streak, and they captured their first 12 games of the following season to run their streak to 59 in a row.
Ironwood St. Ambrose ended the streak with a 58-56 win in Mass.
There was some controversy afterward when it was learned that St. Ambrose had used a 23-year-old player who had gone into the Army, and then returned to finish high school.
“There were no age limits (on players) in those days,” Toivonen pointed out. “But they beat us that night.”
The streak could have gone as high as 80 games in a row, but for a loss to Cooks in the 1946 Class E regional finals.
Norman Makinen, a member of the team, said the whole experience was eye-opening.
“We were just a bunch of farm kids,” Makinen said. “Most of us had never been below the straits.”
Other members of the team were Richard Aho, Wayne Huotari, Peter Hautamaki, Donald Johnson, Herbert Trevarrow, Jim Anttila, Dale Koski and Ernest Johnson.
Ironically enough, Chassell defeated Ironwood St. Ambrose by two points in district tourney play in 1958 to break the M-G record.
But the great success at Mass wasn’t done yet.
The 1954-55 team lost three games early in the season — including a 74-64 decision to eventual Class C state champion Houghton.
Leno Colla was the coach, albeit receiving a lot of assistance from Wilson, who was the school superintendent by then.
“Leno (Colla) was the bench coach, but he listened to John Wilson when it came to strategy,” said Harvey Filppula, a team manager and later a successful coach at Dollar Bay High.
Roland Antila, who was one the leading scorers that season, said the early losses helped the team.
“It was a real good experience playing against better teams, and we got better as a result,” the late Antila recalled.
Led by the scoring of Dale Blake, Arnold Kaikko and Antila, Mass breezed through the districts and regionals.
They avenged one of their early defeats versus a strong Trout Creek team in the districts.
The team defeated Ashley 73-46 in the state championship game as Blake and Antila had big games.
Antila later forged a U.P. Hall of Fame coaching career at White Pine High by recording more than 300 wins.
Toivonen coached later Rocket teams in the 1960s to success.
The school closed due to consolidation in 1967.