Jake Witt: the UP's Best-Kept Secret

December 22, 2017

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – You would think it difficult to be a 6-foot-7 athlete and weigh 235 pounds and not be known outside your home area.

It can happen. And it did happen.

Jake Witt has basically flown beneath the radar of high school sports aficionados heading into the final months of his high school career. That despite the fact he is perhaps the premier senior athlete in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and among the best in the state.

The Ewen-Trout Creek senior has scored more than 1,000 points and is close to 1,000 rebounds in basketball. He is a two-time 8-player all-state football selection, earning those honors after the only two seasons he played football.

He lives about 10 miles from tiny Ewen, where E-TC is located on M-28 about 55 miles from the peninsula's western border with Wisconsin. His school has fewer than 100 students and plays basketball against mostly similar-sized schools from its side of the U.P.

Only a handful of colleges even knew about him, in either sport, primarily because of location and the fact he did not participate in the travel ball circuit. Michigan Tech University, about 70 miles north of his home, knew all about him and offered him a basketball scholarship. Witt signed his letter of intent this fall.

Northern Michigan University, about 110 miles east in Marquette, was in football contact with him before basketball got on board. NMU's basketball team was Witt's second choice behind Tech, where he had participated in some team camps.

Wisconsin-Green Bay was the lone Division I school on his trail, although Northwestern University showed some initial interest. Ferris State and Grand Valley State – which play in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with Tech and NMU – also were interested.

"It was nice not having as much attention and having a low profile," Witt said a day after the Panthers beat Bessemer 63-59 last week to raise their record to 4-0 this season. "It was nice playing on a team that does not have much hype. I can just go out and play."

Despite the low profile, it is surprising he escaped notice on the recruiting trail. After all, how many players his size run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, are used as the primary ball handler on the press break, shoot 3-point field goals with 50 percent accuracy and dominate inside despite constant double- and triple-team defenses?

"He is a big-time athlete, a big-time performer in the U.P.," said veteran Tech coach Kevin Luke. "He is bigger, faster and stronger than anybody up here."

With that pedigree, it is surprising Witt escaped attention of the major schools, although the U.P. is far from even the outlying recruiting paths and not known as a breeding ground for high-caliber cagers – and Witt has not played in Lower Michigan or Wisconsin.

"If he played just one summer of AAU ball (or played downstate) he would have had a ton of Division I schools after him," said E-TC coach Brad Besonen, adding "his location and not advertising himself" were factors in his lack of attention.

Witt had an opportunity to join a travel team in Escanaba, but declined because of six-hour round-trip drives for practice on Wednesday and Sunday nights in addition to lengthy travel for games. "It was mainly my location," he said of avoiding travel teams.

The colleges that did not chase Witt may have missed someone who could be a big contributor.

"We rely on him for everything," said Besonen, citing his protection of the basket that includes blocking shots and/or forcing shot adjustments, ball-handling and floor-wide scoring skill. "He is very agile, has great feet and excellent body control."

Besonen said Witt's lack of "advertising himself" is because of strong family ties, which also were a factor in his decision to stay within about five hours of home. "He likes to hang out with his family (and friends), bass fish and weight lift.

"He is a total throw-back kid from 30-40 years ago," said Besonen. "He is definitely not a look-at-me-guy."

As a powerful presence, Witt draws major defensive attention – and through his unselfishness, he has developed into an excellent passer. "Our biggest problem is not being able to take him out for a lot of rest. He has a big frame, and he gets gassed. We don't play slow," said Besonen.

This season Witt is averaging 33 points and 14 rebounds a game. In football, where E-TC students played for Ontonagon in a co-op arrangement, 13 of his 28 pass receptions in a run-oriented offense were touchdowns, and he covered about 600 yards. Last year at E-TC, he set an MHSAA 8-player record with 25 TD catches while nabbing 71 passes for 1,698 yards.

Playing college football was considered, but he had 12 years of basketball experience. With only two years of gridiron experience and at the 8-player level, he probably would have been a football red-shirt and may have bulked up to play tackle, although his desire was to be a tight end and catch passes.

Tech gained his scholarship signature because of its splendid academic reputation.

"After college and entering the work force, the degree you get up there (in Houghton) is worth so much," said Witt, who is still pondering his academic direction.

"I am definitely excited to finish my senior year with my college decision already made," he added, noting that he is looking forward to working with Tech assistant coach Josh Buettner, a former GLIAC all-star for the Huskies. "Josh is one of the best big-men coaches in the GLIAC, and Coach Luke is also a very good coach."

Witt, who is a good fit for the blue-collar Tech brand of basketball, will likely play a 3-4 spot with the ability to venture outside to force mismatch situations. "We feel like we are getting a good ball player, a great blue-chipper," said Luke.

After towering over his prep opponents, Witt knows it will be an adjustment to battle players of equal size or bigger when he gets to Tech. "It will take a lot of getting used to playing bigger guys," he said, expecting to get more one-on-one opportunities than in high school.

Besonen firmly believes Witt will adjust the college level. "They could benefit from him being there right now. Add another year and offseason conditioning, and he could be helpful next year," said Besonen.

"He is still building (his game). The adjustment level will be huge for him, especially at his position," Besonen added, noting Witt must improve his footwork. "His feet are coordinated and quick."

Witt may be virtually unknown now. But clearly, he has the potential to become well known.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Jake Witt blocks a shot during his team's win earlier this month against Bessemer. (Middle) Witt, left, playing for the Ontonagon/Ewen-Trout Creek football co-op team, wraps up an Eben Junction Superior Central ball carrier this fall. (Photos courtesy of the Ironwood Daily Globe.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)