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.)

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.

A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.

Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.

Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.

“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.  

In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.

She answered, and it was Beckett.

“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”

Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.

At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.

“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.

Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.

“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”

But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.

Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.

That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.

“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”

Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.

However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.

“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.

Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.

It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.

“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”     

Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.

“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”

Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.

“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.