Manton, Buckley Prepped for Final Week

March 17, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – History repeated itself Wednesday night.

Down four midway through the fourth quarter, Manton rallied for an edge-of-your-seat 47-46 win over Boyne City in the MHSAA Class C Regional Final at Houghton Lake.

It was Manton’s first Regional title since 1998, when the Rangers topped Boyne City, also at Houghton Lake.

“It’s interesting how things work out,” said Manton coach Ryan Hiller, who was a star player on that 1998 squad.

The Rangers next will face Negaunee on Tuesday in Petoskey.

Manton is one of two Wexford County teams marching on to the Quarterfinals. Unbeaten Buckley upended Suttons Bay 56-37 for a Class D Regional crown at Traverse City Central.

It was Buckley’s first Regional championship since 2010. The Bears will meet Wyoming Tri-unity Christian on Tuesday in Cadillac.

“Let’s do it,” said Bears coach Blair Moss, who starts five underclassmen. “This is fun. I told the kids, ‘This is something you’ll remember the rest of your lives. Let’s not waste it.’ I’m not worried about next year because you never know what will happen next year. Let’s do it right now.”

While Manton players, coaches and fans were basking in the glow of victory in Houghton Lake, Hiller was relieved to be moving on. The Rangers won despite shooting 26 percent from the field – 23 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. In Monday’s Regional opening win over Maple City Glen Lake, the Rangers were 1-of-11 behind the arc in the first half.

“We just don’t shoot well in that gym,” said Hiller. “We’re a 42 percent 3-point shooting team. We had a stretch of five games this season where we hit over 10 3s (in each game).

“These were the two worst shooting nights we’ve had all year. That was my fear (coming into the Final). If we don’t hit our 3s, it’s a dogfight. And that’s exactly what happened.”

It forced Manton to rely on other parts of its game.

“Free throws and defense won the game for us,” said junior guard Hunter Ruell after the title-clinching victory. “We got some big stops at the end – our coaches had a good gameplan for us – and we hit our free throws. That’s what got us the win.”

The Rangers were 14 of 18 from the charity stripe, 9 of 10 in the fourth quarter. On Monday night, they finished 17 of 19, 9 of 11 over the final eight minutes.

Ruell led the way Wednesday with 13 points, but Jayden Perry, Wyatt Baker and Trever Salani all made key shots down the stretch.

“It’s amazing,” said Ruell. “(A tournament run has) been our dream since day one. Our first goal was to get past McBain (in the District). Since then, we’ve been playing it game by game and it’s been working out.”

“For the players and coaches, who have all worked hard and put the time in, this is rewarding,” added Hiller. “And it’s great for our community. Our community needed something like this. I think our whole town was watching or listening to the game tonight.”

The tournament door swung open for the 20-4 Rangers when they beat unbeaten and top-ranked McBain in the District Final, 54-48. McBain had beaten Manton twice during the regular season, 57-55 and 61-45. The Ramblers also had sent the Rangers to the exits in the last two Districts with down-to-the-wire 46-43 and 49-48 triumphs.

“We’ve been so close,” said Hiller. “We’ve been in so many battles with them.”

This time the Rangers won that battle, and now their journey will take them to Petoskey, where they opened the season with wins over Class A Regional finalist Traverse City West 76-72 and the host Northmen 52-48 in the Petoskey Invitational.

Oh, by the way, the Rangers shot 48 percent beyond the arc in those games.

“Our kids should have confidence playing in that gym,” said Hiller.

There’s actually a Petoskey connection at work for the Rangers this season. Former Northmen standout Trevor Huffman, who led Kent State to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2002 and then played 12 years of professional basketball, is helping out, although now it’s “from afar” since he’s been in the Caribbean a good chunk of the season.

“We have good, hard-working, nice kids,” said Hiller. “He (Huffman) formed a bond with them. He said, ‘Hey, I’d love to help as much as I can.’ He’s been helping all season.”

Huffman started working with the team in practice, but left for the Caribbean around the first of the year, Hiller said. Still, he analyzes film for his friend after each Rangers game.

Hiller loads the film on Hudl, allowing Huffman instant access to it.

“It’s awesome to see the game from his eyes,” said Hiller. “He sees things I don’t.  He’s so competitive, and his reports are so detailed. He tells me, ‘You get that game on right after you win and I’ll watch it.’ He’s enjoying the coaching part of it.”

Huffman is also able to leave individual comments on the videos for players to review.

“He promised the kids if they made it to the Breslin he would fly back for the games,” said Hiller. “He’s sticking with it.”

On his Twitter account Wednesday, Huffman congratulated the Rangers on their Regional triumph.

“Proud of their team and what they have put into playing together, on and off the court,” he wrote. “There is nothing better than winning championships with your best friends. Congrats fellas! Enjoy the moment and back to work.”

It’s also back to work for Buckley.

The 24-0 Bears broke Wednesday’s Regional Final open in the third quarter, outscoring Suttons Bay 20-10 to stretch their lead to 15. It was still a 27-22 game when junior Austin Harris nailed a 3-pointer for Buckley. He was fouled after the shot, giving the Bears the ball back. Harris then hit another triple, and Buckley was on its way.

“This team is one of a kind,” said Harris. “We work really hard. We have depth and we have skill. But the biggest thing we have is heart.”

Buckley reached the Regional Finals a year ago, but turnovers in the final couple minutes proved costly in a loss to Bellaire.

“I thought we had them (Bellaire) on their heels,” said Moss, “and then we threw it away the last three or four possessions. We said then we wanted to get back here because we felt we left something on the court. We didn’t take care of the ball, and when you play like that against a good Bellaire team it comes back to haunt you and it haunted us all summer.”

The Bears vowed to improve in crunch time, but so far they rarely have been tested.

Of the 24 wins, 22 are by double digits. Only Glen Lake (63-60) and Manton (77-73) have put the heat on. Manton hit 13 3-pointers in their late February matchup.

Moss’ message to his team after that game?

“Just a hand up is not good enough,” he said. “You have to get a hand in their face.”

Buckley put added emphasis on defense this season, and the results tell the story. The Bears have held the opposition to under 40 points in 13 games.

Perhaps the best individual defensive effort came Wednesday night when sophomore Ridge Beeman shadowed Suttons Bay’s leading scorer Thomas Hursey, limiting the junior to three points.

“Keep a hand in the chest, stay in front of him and don’t let him shoot,” said Beeman. “That’s what Coach told me to do.”

He then proceeded to carry out the orders.

“Unbelievable,” said Moss, who was still conducting interviews about 30 minutes after the game ended. “I’ve got to go in and shake that kid’s hand. To hold Hursey to three points – and that was on a long desperation shot before half – that was huge. Kudos to him. I told him I don’t care if you don’t score any points at all, you make sure you lock that kid (Hursey) down because he has range, he can score from anywhere.”

Denver Cade hit his average, scoring 21 points for the Bears. Harris added 15, Beeman eight and Joey Weber seven.

“It was a good team win,” said Beeman. “It was a low scoring game for us, but we grinded it out.”

And it kept Buckley’s ultimate goal – a trip to Michigan State’s Breslin Center – in play.

“Our first goal was to win the conference championship, and we accomplished that,” said Cade. “Then it was the District championship, and we accomplished that. The Regional? We just accomplished that. Now our goal is to get to the Breslin.”

The run has also helped Moss get through a difficult time. His mother passed away earlier this month.

“I was very close with my mother,” he said. “That’s been on my mind. I’ve got a heavy heart.”

March, in Michigan basketball circles, is known as a memory-maker month, and Moss is determined to get the best efforts out of his players.

His message?

“Play hard, give me everything,” he said. “Don’t leave anything on the floor because if you do you’ll regret it forever – forever.”

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) Manton’s Trevor Salani works to get around a defender. (Middle top) Buckley celebrates Wednesday’s Regional Final win. (Middle below) Manton’s Wyatt Baker and Hunter Ruell lock down a Boyne City player working toward the basket. (Below) A Buckley player battles for a rebound against Suttons Bay. (Manton photos by Jeannie Christensen; Buckley photos courtesy of Buckley High School.) 

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

By Jason Juno
Special for

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.)