Western Ends Perfect Run with 1st Title

March 28, 2015

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half 

EAST LANSING — Even in their own city, even after all they'd accomplished this season, Detroit Western International's basketball players were somewhat of a curiosity when they showed up at Calihan Hall to play in the MHSAA Class A Quarterfinals on Tuesday. 

Western had been this far only twice in its long history — and neither occasion was recent history. The Cowboys reached the Quarterfinals in 1922 and the semifinals in 1974, long before any of the current players were born.

"That's why so many eyebrows were raised," junior guard Brailen Neely said. "When we were at Calihan, they hear Western and they're like, 'Western? They've never had a program.'" 

The Cowboys do now — the undisputed No. 1 program in Michigan in 2014-15. 

Western completed a perfect season by beating sixth-ranked Saginaw Arthur Hill, 62-59, in the MHSAA Class A championship game Saturday at the Breslin Center.

The Cowboys finished 26-0, including a 69-57 overtime victory over Arthur Hill in their second game. On only five occasions did a team come within single digits of Western. It was the first MHSAA championship in any sport for the school, which was the 1972 Class A runner-up in baseball and had been past the Regionals only five times in bracketed sports.

"It's really big for the community," senior guard Josh McFolley said. "The community hasn't had this in a very long time. It's really big for the school. It's really big for coach (Derrick McDowell) and the team. We've worked hard for this from day one." 

Not only has Western historically played in the shadows of Detroit's powerful programs, but the Cowboys were coming off a season in which they gave little indication that they would take the state by storm this winter. Western showed promise two years ago, going 12-7 in McDowell's second season at the school, but the Cowboys slumped to 6-13 last winter. 

Even Neely admits he never expected such a dramatic turnaround.

"I thought we would do better, but never state champs," said Neely, who was on the varsity as a freshman.

Neely said the big difference was that the team paid better attention to McDowell, who coached now-defunct Detroit Redford to Class A runner-up finishes in 1997 and 2002. 

"It was a process," Neely said. "Our freshman year, we were young and had only one senior. We had a lot of growing to do. Our next year, our 10th-grade year, we thought we had it. We weren't listening. We were knuckleheads, and it showed in our game. We didn't have our best year. People weren't coming to see us, which humbled us. This year, we're on coach Mac's page and he led us to tremendous success."

With sophomore Brian Bowen scoring 10 of his game-high 21 points in the second quarter, Arthur Hill (24-4) grabbed a 25-21 lead heading into halftime. 

There were seven lead changes in less than four minutes during the third quarter before Western took the lead for good at 33-32 on two free throws by Neely with 2:28 to go in the period. Those shots ignited what proved to be a decisive 16-2 run, as Western's lead grew to 47-34 with 5:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.

McFolley overcame an ankle sprain that he sustained before halftime to lead the surge, scoring 10 points during the third quarter. He hit two 3-pointers and scored twice when he stole the ball and went in for layups. He limped noticeably after the game, but showed no signs of the injury during the second half. 

"I knew the adrenaline was going to go through me," McFolley said. "I was going to forget about the pain. It's the biggest game of my career. My team needed me. I had to go back out there."

With Bowen scoring nine fourth-quarter points, the Lumberjacks battled back to within four points twice in the final minute. Nate Moore scored with four seconds left to get Arthur Hill within three, but the Lumberjacks were out of timeouts and Western didn't need to inbound the ball. 

"We knew it was going to be tough," McDowell said. "We played them the first time down in Detroit. They were up 13 at the half. The only way we got back in the game was from the defense the first time we played them. At halftime, that was the big emphasis, getting them in the full court, making them work to get down the court. We kind of looked at it like a football field where you have to work to get to the goal line."

Western was led by McFolley with 19 points and Gerald Blackshear with 16 points and 12 rebounds. As transfer students this winter, neither played in the first Arthur Hill game or during their team’s 8-0 start. 

"To be honest with you, I knew they were coming, but I had all the pieces anyway," McDowell said. "Those were just extra pieces, I thought. We weren't looking for them to come in and be Superman and Batman and save us. We had enough to win, which showed early in the year when we won without them. What that did was shut up the naysayers who thought the only way we could do it was with those two. We proved them wrong. When they became eligible, it just added to it."

Karim Murray added 15 points for the Cowboys. 

Arthur Hill fell short in its bid to win its third MHSAA title to go with championships in 1944 and 2006.

Guard Eric Davis, the Mr. Basketball runner-up, placed the burden for the loss on his shoulders. 

"We just missed a couple of opportunities," said Davis, who had 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. "I take full responsibility for today's effort and our loss today. I want to thank my teammates and our coaching staff. They did a great job this year. I take full responsibility. I feel like I didn't step up like I needed to, but I've just got to move on now."

Arthur Hill coach Greg McMath appreciated the show of leadership from his four-year star, but wouldn't let Davis take the blame. 

"Like I told Eric (Friday) night, he's a kid who really transformed himself and put the program back where we wanted it to be, because he sacrificed a lot for his team, becoming a point guard and cutting down on his scoring to get everybody else involved to help these guys get better," McMath said. "We're a team. We win as a team; we lose as a team. Him accepting that, we'll take it, but we know it's not his fault, because he gave it everything he had."

Billy Burton had 10 points for Arthur Hill. 

Click for the full box score and video from the postgame press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Western International’s Josh McFolley celebrates with his teammates the school’s first MHSAA championship. (Middle) Arthur Hill’s Eric Davis (10) works to get around McFolley.

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.)