Future Set, Livers Aims for 'Giant' Finish

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

November 15, 2016

KALAMAZOO — Letters, text messages and phone calls every single day.

That might sound like a typical teenager, but Isaiah Livers was overwhelmed by all of the above during his junior year at Kalamazoo Central High School.

After committing to University of Michigan on Aug. 7, Livers has already noticed that this basketball preseason is much less stressful.

“Last year, I’d get out of practice and there would be like 10 messages (from coaches), at least, a day,” the 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward said. “Then there’d be a phone call or two.

“Then I’d have to answer their messages, I’d have to call them back one by one. You have to find the time, manage your time, know when to call them back, not to be disrespectful.”

Livers received scholarship offers from more than 25 colleges, but was contacted by a ton more.

“If you don’t like the school, let them know you’re not interested,” he said of whittling down the list. “Sorry, but thanks for recruiting me.”

He’s not the only one whose cell phone was blowing up.

His father, Morris Livers, also was inundated with calls, especially after his son started playing in the Elite Youth Basketball League last May.

“That’s when it got crazy,” his dad said. “After that, my phone died all the time because it rang all the time. Colleges calling, leaving voice mails, dropping offers.”

Once Isaiah committed to Michigan, “I was so happy when it came to that,” his dad said. “I was in my (Gordon Water Systems) work truck and I was like, ‘I’m about tired of all these coaches calling my phone.’”

Navigating the process

Livers honed his court skills at a young age.

His dad, who played basketball at South Haven High School, was working out with his older son, Brandon, when 7-year-old Isaiah started soaking up the instruction.

But it wasn’t until Livers was a freshman that basketball became serious business.

“That’s when the height came,” Morris Livers said. “To me, that’s the X factor. In ninth grade he grew at least six inches, it seemed, overnight. He was at least 6-4, 6-6.”

Central Arkansas was the first college to contact the Livers — when Isaiah was a freshman.

“I remember because it’s the school Scottie Pippen went to,” said Morris Livers, a diehard Chicago Bulls fan.

Most college coaches contacted K-Central coach Ramsey Nichols, Livers’ father or AAU coach Damon Allison before contacting the then-junior.

“They’d tell me, ‘This school is looking at you; they think you’re a great player,’” Livers said. 

Having been through the college recruiting process himself when he played basketball at Benton Harbor High School, Nichols tries to help his players navigate it.

“I know it can be a hassle for them,” said Nichols, who also played at University of Detroit. “So I try to reassure them that it’s just a process, not to get too caught up in it; to make sure you keep things in perspective and to focus on what we need to do.

“It’s a relief to a certain extent when you sign early. You don’t have to worry about where you’re going. You can truly concentrate on winning a state championship with your team or whatever the goals you’ve set for yourself.”

Nichols said the college coaches already knew what Livers brought to the game but they were interested in more than just the athletics side.

“The first thing a lot ask is what kind of a kid he is,” Nichols said. “They ask about his character first. Of course, they are also going to ask how he is academically.

“They see that he can play basketball very well. But those are more important questions, how is he off the court and in the classroom.”

After committing, “It was probably the biggest relief,” Livers said. “I went out to eat and got congratulated. It felt really good.”

Not everyone was that happy about it.

“The (other players) got on me because they said ‘Dang, you committed. That means there’s no more schools flying in here to watch,’” he said, laughing.

“Last year, we had an open gym. (A college coach) walked in and one of my friends said, ‘I like that college; let me work hard.’”

Tasks at hand

Livers, who has played varsity all four years, averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game last season as Kalamazoo Central finished 18-4 and won the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East title.

“This year he’ll be a captain, being one of the elder statesmen now instead of being one of the younger guys,” Nichols said. “I think he’s stepping into that role now pretty well. 

“He’s more vocal now. A lot of the things we go through, he runs it, like some of the drills. He’ll lead guys through, pull the young guys through.”

Senior teammate Jeremiah Vincent said Livers helps his teammates shine as well.

“He can score, rebound, pass,” said Vincent, who hopes to play Division III college ball at Hope or Kalamazoo College. “He’s facilitates the ball real well.

“Once he gets going, he opens up for everybody else so it’s really nice to have him on the team. He’s definitely a really good team player.”

Last season, the Maroon Giants made it to the MHSAA Regional Semifinals before losing to Lansing Everett.

This season, “Everyone’s gonna have to dig deep,” Livers said. “We started off great last year. We were feeling like, ‘We’ve got this.’ I think what we did is we went to our mind and said we’ve got this game already.

“I know that’s what happened. I could see it in the faces when we went to the locker room. This year, we’re not taking anyone for granted. We’re gonna play to the best of our abilities.”

It’s impossible to not dream about the future. Nichols, who coached Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler at Benton Harbor, said Livers has NBA potential.

“It’s obvious he has the ability to play on the next biggest stage by signing to play at the University of Michigan,” he said. “He has worked hard here and improved every year.

“If he continues to put in the hours to develop and hone his skills at the college level, I feel he may get an opportunity to play at the highest level.

“I don't know if he realizes how good he can be. I believe his best years as a basketball player are ahead of him. More importantly, Isaiah is a character guy who is a great teammate and committed to winning. He has done things the right way, so good things are going to follow him.”

And first up is the potential for an excellent high school senior season. This winter before each tipoff, Livers said he will be able to concentrate more on the game that night.

“Last year, pregame you ask yourself, ‘Why are these schools recruiting me; what are they looking for?’” he said.

“But when it comes game time, I think about playing my game. Biggest thing for me is winning. I don’t like losing.”

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Central's Isaiah Livers dunks against Portage Central. (Middle) Livers follows through on a jumpshot. (Below) Clockwise, from top left: Isaiah Livers, Morris Livers, Jeremiah Vincent, Ramsey Nichols. (Action photos by Herbert Todd; head shots by Pam Shebest.) 

E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage

By Jason Juno
Special for MHSAA.com

June 28, 2024

Ewen-Trout Creek graduate Jake Witt is playing for a spot on the Indianapolis Colts’ 53-man roster. The memories of high school sports, and the impact they’ve had on his journey to the NFL, have stuck with him through his college days and even now as a professional.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosThe 300-plus receiving yards he went for in a game against the eventual 8-player state champion back in 2017. 

The regular-season basketball game where 3,276 fans turned out to watch his Panthers play just a few months later.

The teamwork prep sports taught him. The family atmosphere he got to be a part of on the high school football team.

“Football was definitely the sport I felt the most family-type feeling with it,” Witt said earlier this week after fishing on Erickson Lake while back in the Upper Peninsula before training camp begins next month. “That’s what drew me back to wanting to play football in college, was my opportunity in high school to play and getting that feeling with the guys and that family-oriented feel.”

Witt played two years of high school football. He lined up exclusively at wide receiver for Ewen-Trout Creek as a junior and then was more of a blocking tight end when E-TC and Ontonagon joined forces as a co-op program when he was a senior.

He ultimately decided to play basketball first in college, at Michigan Tech. But two of his three finalists were football opportunities.

“Obviously playing basketball from second grade on, people would probably assume that I would want to play basketball in college,” Witt said. “I think that just goes to show that football in those two years had a big impact and obviously it led me to where I am when I played at Northern and where I am today.”

Witt played only one year of basketball at Tech. He transferred to Northern Michigan University to attend as a student only before being talked into playing football. 

He was initially a tight end there before moving to tackle because of injuries during a game against Ferris State. He dominated, not allowing a sack or even a quarterback pressure against what was considered the best Division II defensive line in the country. 

He stayed at tackle for what was left of that season and then all of his final year at Northern. Despite his limited time at the position, he had the attention of NFL scouts and entered the draft. The attention reached a fever pitch during his pro day at Central Michigan when he wowed with his athleticism. His 9.92 Relative Athletic Score, a way to measure players’ athletic testing while accounting for their size, was one of the best for an offensive tackle prospect since it began being used in 1987.

Witt, right, umpires a baseball game last summer.He was drafted with the 236th pick, in the seventh round, by the Colts in 2023. 

His first training camp was cut short due to a hip injury, and he was then placed on season-ending injured reserve. But he’s back healthy and ready to go. He practiced at second-string left tackle during the offseason camp this spring and now hopes to earn a spot on the 53-man roster with training camp set to begin in a month.

“I want to go into training camp, play well and then play well enough to where they can’t release me off the 53,” Witt said. “The next goal is to play in a game. And I think that will start with special teams, that will start with field goal. And then from there, obviously, everybody is one week of great practice away from playing with the offense, one injury away from playing in a game with the offense.”

Those who watched him during his high school days in the U.P. likely wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that happen.

Witt is still the only receiver to go for 300 or more receiving yards in 8-player football in state history, according to the MHSAA record book. And he did it twice, a 325-yard game against Eben Junction Superior Central as a junior and the 305-yard performance against Crystal Falls Forest Park as a senior.

The Ontonagon co-op team had mostly stuck to running the ball that season, but looked for Witt through the air against the eventual state champion Trojans.

“I think it was 345 (yards), I think they sent in the wrong number,” Witt said. “That was one game where we switched things up with our offensive attack and threw the ball a lot more, and it ended up paying off for us very well. We were down big at halftime, and we pushed back and we were in a battle with them in the second half. It was a great game. We didn’t end up winning, but it was a lot of fun.”

He enjoyed both years of high school football – even while mostly blocking on the line as a senior despite having shown previously to be a more-than-capable receiver.

Witt warms up during the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie camp in May 2023.“A lot of the offense wasn’t focused on me anymore, which was great,” Witt said. “It made me a much more well-rounded football player. It made me a much better athlete, it gave me a better perception on things as a football player versus just being a receiver. I think both years were great for different reasons.”

Witt said every sport he played in high school was beneficial to him going forward. Basketball, for example, taught him teamwork and coordination. 

“And just relationship building is huge; for me, it helped me move on to the professional football level,” he said.

No high school game was quite as memorable for him as that regular-season basketball game at Michigan Tech on a chilly Wednesday night in Houghton.

Ewen-Trout Creek and Dollar Bay were tied atop the U.P. small-school poll. With that type of matchup, and the chance for fans in the Copper Country to see the 6-7 Witt and his above-the-rim play that’s pretty unique in the U.P., the game was moved from Dollar Bay’s tiny gym to Michigan Tech. (He wasn’t quite 300 pounds like he is now, but he was close – and he came into that game averaging 27 points and 16 rebounds per game with no one able to match his size and strength.)

They expected a crowd; they got 3,276. The latest arriving fans had to sit on the floor on the baseline.

“You don’t see that very much in Division 4 basketball even in the playoffs,” Witt said. “Just having that atmosphere, and especially having it between two of the best U.P. teams at the time, and having the storyline that was behind the game was great – and one of the most memorable events to this day still for me.”

Witt is looking forward to the challenge of training camp and achieving his goals in Indianapolis. But he’s not rushing away a U.P. summer. 

He helped out at last week’s U.P. Football All-Star game. He was happy to provide insight for any players headed off to play college ball, and they helped the Marquette County Habitat for Humanity with the finishing touches on one of their houses.

Over the next month, he’ll still be training, going over the playbook and doing position skill work. As happy as he was to help out last week, he’s happy to be on the lake again, too, fishing like a normal Yooper.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do, that and train,” Witt said. “Just trying to destress before I get back into it.”

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Jake Witt played for Ewen-Trout Creek during a 2018 basketball game at Michigan Tech, and at right Witt takes a photo with area youth baseball players last summer. (Middle) Witt, right, umpires a baseball game last summer. (Below) Witt warms up during the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie camp in May 2023. (Photos by Jason Juno.)