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.)
HOWARDSVILLE - There is a sign that hangs inside Howardsville Christian School's tiny gymnasium that accurately depicts the mission for the Eagles during the 2023-24 boys basketball season.
It reads "In Jesus' name we play."
Ken Sparks and the eight players on his varsity basketball roster have challenged themselves to help one another understand what it means to give their season to God.
"My goal is to help these boys find gratitude in playing for a greater power than themselves," said Sparks, a varsity standout himself at Howardsville from 1996-2000, member of the 1,000-point club and an honorable mention all-stater his senior year.
Nestled on the border between St. Joseph and Cass counties along Bent Road, Howardsville Christian, a Division 4 school for its sports with fewer than 80 students, has enjoyed a rich tradition of spiritual learning both in the classroom and on the court and playing fields.
The contribution of many talented athletes from several families has been instrumental in Howardsville's athletic success for years, especially this school year.
Howardsville won District titles this fall in boys soccer and girls volleyball. Now the Eagles hope to carry that momentum over to the basketball court.
With four starters returning, Sparks is looking for Howardsville’s boys team to battle for supremacy in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League and improve on a 13-10 record from last season. The Eagles finished 7-7 in the league last winter and endured a disappointing District Semifinal loss to Marcellus. Howardsville Christian had won its District the season in 2021.
"We competed well with all the teams on our schedule and lost to some teams we shouldn't have," Sparks said. "There are eight teams in our conference, and this season we need to beat Benton Harbor Countryside to be the top team. It's been a good league for us."
Senior twin brothers Colin and Dylan Muldoon return for Howardsville, along with junior cousin Kaden Sparks, son of the head coach, and junior John Paul Rose.
The Muldoon brothers both are beginning their third year as varsity starters.
"Working together as a team is something we really want to do well. A lot of teams set a goal of winning Districts. The last two years we've fallen short of that goal. It's definitely something we want to achieve this year," Colin Muldoon said.
Dylan Muldoon echoed that sentiment.
"Our success in soccer makes us want to attain the same goals in basketball. We know we are capable of reaching those, so I think it makes us want to pull things together," Dylan Muldoon said. "There's a lot of long-distance running in soccer, but there's also a lot of quickness and turning in basketball, especially when you're guarding or driving around someone. You just have to be quick."
Kaden Sparks, another three-year starter, will be Howardsville's best shooting guard.
"Winning Districts is achievable. We have to learn to work together. I played summer ball, and the biggest takeaway is that it taught me that I have to always give 100-percent effort out there. We had a great soccer season, and It’s taught us a lot about accountability," Kaden Sparks said.
Rose will be Howardsville Christian's starting point guard. He has been a starter since his freshman year, along with Kaden Sparks.
"The team chemistry and communication we had in soccer easily transfers over to basketball. As our point guard, it's important for me to try to get the ball to other guys who have open looks," Rose said. "I want to be more aggressive defensively, push the ball up the floor more and increase my scoring."
In addition, Ken Sparks believes the physicality a majority of his team learned from soccer will be a big benefit on the basketball floor.
"You build up your physicality from playing soccer with having to always body up. Watching them play sometimes hurts me, but that's what I want them to do in basketball. It helps them to want to draw contact and be physical on the floor," Ken Sparks said.
The lack of upperclassmen on Howardsville's varsity the last couple of years gave Rose and Kaden Sparks an immediate opportunity to play as freshmen.
"The fact John Paul and Kaden had that early chance at the varsity level is really paying off now,” Ken Sparks added. “Kaden is an excellent shooter. I want him to get the confidence that I had when I was in high school. He tends to be a little more passive on the floor than I like, but he's finally getting that aggressive nature that you need offensively.”
Kaden, Colin Muldoon and Rose all averaged double-digit scoring last season, while Dylan Muldoon is the Eagles' best defensive player. The Muldoon brothers will serve as Howardsville's team captains.
"Kaden is very self-motivated to become a better basketball player. His goal is to be the best player that he can be," Ken Sparks said. "John Paul is explosive and has really refined his jump shot to where he can be a scoring threat. He sees the floor very well and can really push the ball up the floor without turning it over. We're going to see big strides from him because of his determination and drive.
"Colin is a great overall player. He's a threat from the outside and can score inside with his height as well. If we're going to be successful, he and Dylan have to bring the same drive that John Paul and Kaden bring to the court.”
"I've coached all of the guys on our team for the last three seasons except one,” Sparks added. “We talk about being well-rounded. These guys are the best academically and spiritual leaders in our school."
Howardsville Christian’s most well-known alumni is Dylan Jergens, the third-leading scorer in state history with 2,782 career points.
During the fall soccer season, the Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose helped Howardsville win a second-straight District title. The Eagles then lost 5-0 in the Regional Semifinal to eventual Division 4 champion Muskegon Western Michigan Christian. Both Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose were named to the first-team all-BCS and District soccer squads.
The Muldoons were the two main catalysts in the Eagles' soccer run, along with Lukas Krueger. Dylan Muldoon had 28 goals and nine assists, while Colin Muldoon posted 14 goals and eight assists. Krueger added 19 goals to go with 16 assists. Kaden Sparks had five goals and four assists, and Rose added three goals and three assists.
Steve Muldoon, Colin and Dylan's father and Howardsville's head boys soccer coach, sees many correlations between soccer and basketball that will bring the Eagles success in hoops this winter.
"Communication is key. A team that doesn't talk on the field/court isn't going to win. They learn how to correct and encourage one another to deal with problems without getting too negative," Steve Muldoon said. "Individually, they learn how to anticipate. There isn't much difference between anticipating a pass and stepping in front of it in soccer or basketball or making a hard run down the court/field to get open for a layup/counterattack. They learn how to react and make the correct decision under pressure. The skills needed to do it in soccer and basketball are different, but most of it is mental and that carries over."
Determination was another big factor for Howardsville's soccer success this fall.
"We beat Lansing Christian this fall in a weekend soccer tournament and they are a much bigger and physical team than us, but we managed to beat them," Colin Muldoon said. "That win gave us a lot of confidence for the remainder of the season that we could beat anyone."
The family dynamic doesn't stop with Howardsville's boys basketball team.
Senior Kyla Sparks, Ken's daughter and Kaden's older sister, is one of three cousins on the roster for a Howardsville girls team that finished 12-11 last year. All five starters are back for that Eagles team as well.
"As a team, we want to improve on last year's record. With all our starters back, we feel we have a good shot to finish at the top of both our conference and District. Most of our basketball team also played volleyball this fall, and we view us all as family," Kyla Sparks said. "Being able to play with my two cousins makes good lifelong memories."
Kyla Sparks, who averaged 12 points per game her junior year, starts with sophomore cousins Kelsie Muldoon and Kate Evans. Those three also started on the varsity volleyball team that captured its first District title since 1997.
Coincidently, the mothers of Kyla, Kelsie and Kate were all on the 1997 District champion volleyball team.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Colin Muldoon drives to the basket against his twin brother Dylan Muldoon during recent Howardsville Christian boys basketball practice. (Middle) Eagles varsity boys basketball coach Ken Sparks, far left, is pictured by the school's trophy case with his four returning starters Colin Muldoon, Dylan Muldoon, Kaden Sparks and John Paul Rose. (Below) The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (Top and middle photos by Scott Hassinger. District championship photos courtesy of Howardsville Christian School.)