Hillman Becomes Basketball Town, Too

January 6, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

HILLMAN – Eric Muszynski still remembers that day in 2005 when, as the newly appointed boys basketball coach at Hillman, he made a promise to the man who hired him, administrator Jack Richards.

As they gazed at the banners in the school gymnasium – highlighted by the school’s three MHSAA Class D championships in baseball – Muszynski vowed to add some basketball banners to the collection.

“He (Richards) chuckled,” Muszynski recalled. “He said, ‘Try to get to .500 first.’”

Historically, Hillman’s been a baseball town. The Tigers played for MHSAA championships four times in six years during the 1990s.

“Basketball was something you did to stay in shape for baseball,” said Richards, who went on to serve as superintendent for five years. “Eric’s turned that around.”

Since 2009, Hillman has won four North Star Conference basketball championships, five Districts and one Regional. The Tigers stretched their regular-season win streak to 44 after Thursday night’s 68-38 victory over Mio. Their last regular-season loss was to Cedarville in the 2014-15 opener.

Quite a turnaround for a program that had won only one league title prior to Muszynski’s arrival.

“And that wasn’t an outright title,” senior guard Gunnar Libby said.

Libby, a first-team Associated Press all-state pick last season, is the catalyst for this 5-0 Tigers team. A four-year varsity veteran, Libby has played a vital role in the program’s growth. Hillman won its first outright league title when he was a freshman, captured its first Regional crown when he was a sophomore, and posted its first unbeaten regular season when he was a junior.

“I’ve been really lucky to play on some good teams,” he said.

The turnaround did not happen overnight. The Tigers were 10-32 in Muszynski’s first two years.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will we ever get over that hump?’” Muszynski wondered.

His boss stood by him.

“I had some people come to my office, saying he wasn’t the guy for the job,” Richards said. “I told them, ‘Settle down. This guy will bring us championships.’ Eric heard me, and he took it to heart. He worked hard to prove me right.”

In his third season, Muszynski led Hillman to an 11-10 mark. From there, the program took off.

“It’s been truly amazing,” the former Alpena High School standout said. “As a coach, you envision and hope that your program can do big things. We’ve been in that conversation – of trying to get down to East Lansing (for the Final Four) – since 2013 when we almost upset Cedarville (a double overtime loss) in the Regional Final.”

Hillman, sparked by Mason VanPamel and Ty Jones, reached the Quarterfinals in 2015 before losing to eventual champion Powers North Central.

It looked like the Tigers might be in for a rebuild last season, losing eight seniors and four starters to graduation. Instead, Hillman won its first 22 games before losing to Onaway 58-57 in the District Final.

“We were counted out from the very beginning,” Libby said. “We proved everybody wrong.”

Still, the setback to Onaway – a team Hillman had knocked out of the Districts the previous three years – left a bitter taste. Onaway reached the Quarterfinals, but that loss motivates the Tigers.

When his team first gathered for practice this season, Muszynski stressed the importance of “protecting” its league title as well as recapturing the District championship. Hillman had won three Districts in a row before its sudden exit last March.

“That District (trophy) should be in Hillman,” Libby said.

That statement reflects how far this program has evolved. It’s a program that’s now won 46 consecutive league games and 36 consecutive home games.

Those streaks continue to grow, although Libby admitted he’s lost count.

“You just go out there and do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

The 5-foot-9 Libby is the floor general and lone senior in the starting lineup. He averages 25 points and six assists per game. He surpassed 1,000 career points in the season opener when he dropped 30 on Cedarville.

“He’s lightning quick,” Muszynski said. “He’s a tough kid; a hard-nosed, old school style point guard.”

Libby’s backcourt mate, 5-10 junior Brandon Banks, averages nearly 15 a game.

“That’s been our recipe for success since 2009,” Muszynski said. “We usually feature two dynamic scorers.”

Andrew Funk, a 6-foot junior, is also averaging in double figures. He scored 19 in Tuesday’s win, hitting five of Hillman’s 13 3-pointers.

The Tigers compensate for lack of size with speed, a trapping defense and a dangerous perimeter game. Kory Henigan, a 6-4 sophomore, and Billy Kolcan, a 6-1 junior, are the tallest starters. Henigan averages eight points and seven rebounds while the athletic Kolcan, an MHSAA Finals qualifier in track and an honorable mention all-state player in football, spearheads the press.

“He (Kolcan) plays up front on our press,” Muszynski said. “He makes us go. He’s one of the best athletes to come through our school in a long time.”

Kolcan, Banks and Funk were on varsity as sophomores last season.

“On paper, it appears we’re young,” Muszynski said. “But we’re battle-tested.”

And, according to Libby, cohesive, too.

“We work well together,” Libby said. “We’re unselfish – and we scrap.”

Now, the Tigers would like to start playing more basketball. Hillman played just three games in December after two contests were postponed due to weather.

“It’s hard to get any kind of rhythm and consistency when you play two games, then you’re off two weeks, you play one game, then you’re off another two weeks,” Libby said.

As for Muszynski, this is his 12th season at Hillman. He was hired as a physical education/health/social studies teacher and girls basketball coach. When the boys job opened soon afterward, he added that to his responsibilities. He coached both teams for two years before the MHSAA switched girls basketball season to the winter. Even though the girls were 30-12 in those two seasons under his leadership, he felt coaching boys basketball was his calling.

“I liked the challenge,” he said. “With the girls, I walked into a good program. With the boys, I wanted to see if I could build a program.”

With a win over Rudyard just before the holiday break, the 37-year-old Muszynski notched his 200th career win at Hillman (30 with the girls, 170 with the boys).

“He’s been a real blessing for us,” Libby said. “He’s a great coach. He holds us all accountable. He’s thorough, and he can motivate. He knows his stuff.”

“I’m truly blessed,” Muszynski added. “That’s (200 wins) a credit to my players, past and present.”

Muszynski echoed those same sentiments after he won the Associated Press Class D Coach of the Year honor last season.

“One of the proudest moments in my coaching career,” he admitted. “Not only was it a great reward, but it was a reflection of our basketball program here.”

Richards, meanwhile, takes satisfaction in the basketball program’s accomplishments. Now retired, he still follows the Tigers – and Muszynski.

What did he see in Muszynski when he hired him in 2005?

“He has a drive,” Richards said. “He knows what it takes and the work that’s involved. A lot of people just want to work during the season, and when it’s over they’re done. That’s not Eric. He’s a worker, a planner. You could see his desire.”

Richards also feared, once the boys started winning, that Muszynski might leave for a bigger school. He even mentioned that to Muszynski.

“Eric said, ‘You gave me the opportunity to be a head coach and I want to do right by you,’” Richards recalled. “I said, ‘I understand that. But let me give you a piece of advice: it’s easier to build a dynasty in a small town than in a large town.’ I think he’s done a pretty good job with that.”

Muszynski looked north to Cedarville for inspiration. Coach Dave Duncan developed that program into a state contender. The Trojans won an MHSAA title in 2007 and nearly another two years later.

“I thought if a small Class D school in the Upper Peninsula can do that, why can’t we?” Muszynski reasoned.

One of Muszynski’s first priorities was to start applying his philosophies in the youth program so by the time those players reached the varsity they would know the defensive schemes and offensive sets.

“They’ve seen success so they know the formula works,” Muszynski said. “If you have some success, and start to win championships, everyone starts to buy in.”

As for baseball? Practice is still several weeks away.

“When I first got there,” Richards recalled, “the kids, after basketball practice, would put their gloves on and throw the baseball around. They even had a batting cage in the old gym. Now, you don’t see a baseball glove in the gym during the winter.”

Now you see basketball banners.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gunnar Libby, who has scored more than 1,000 points during his Hillman career, cuts through a group of defenders. (Middle) Hillman coach Eric Muszynski addresses his team. (Photos courtesy of The Alpena News.)

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.)