Yeager Twins, Strong Senior Class have Nouvel on Track to Meet High Expectations

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 24, 2024

Donny Yeager and his Saginaw Nouvel Catholic Central boys basketball teammates certainly weren’t happy with their 0-3 start to this season, even if they weren’t at all worried about what it meant for their future.

Bay & ThumbBut now, with the Panthers in the midst of a nine-game win streak, they’re even able to see the good in those early defeats.

“We knew coming into the season that the first three games were going to be really tough games, especially at the beginning of the season,” Yeager said of the opening stretch against Essexville Garber, Pewamo-Westphalia and Cass City. “So we knew there was nothing to worry about, and that we had the whole season ahead of us. We knew practices were going to get us ready for the next one. I definitely think we learned a lot about our group. We learned about the determination and perseverance that our guys bring to the table.”

That determination and perseverance have the Panthers back on track in what was expected to be a special season – and in many ways already has been – following a Regional Final berth a year ago.

Not only is Nouvel 9-3 ahead of its game Friday night against St. Louis, but MJ Yeager, Donny’s twin brother, set the school’s career scoring record earlier this month. Donny Yeager, meanwhile, is less than 30 points away from joining his brother in the school’s 1,000-point club.

“We have a lot of experience back,” said Nouvel coach Mike Kessler, who is in his ninth season in charge of the program. “We try not to look ahead, and we’re trying to take it one step at a time. And I think we had to have a lot of conversations with our guys about just relaxing. We know expectations might be high, but let’s do what we’ve done for years. We have a really hard-working group this year, and they needed to just trust themselves.”

A lot of those expectations came from the return of the Yeager twins, as both MJ – a four-year starter – and Donny – a three-year starter – are in their fourth year on the varsity. Classmate Preston Otter is also in his third year as a starter. 

Twin brother Donny Yeager drives past an Essexville Garber defender during his team’s Nov. 28 opener.The Yeagers are both 5-foot-10 guards who can handle the ball and shoot from distance, while Otter is a 6-4 forward that Kessler called “a crazy good athlete.”

“Their work ethic is second to none; it really is,” Kessler said. “They’re everything you want from seniors. They exemplify what we want our program and our school to be about.”

In total, there are seven seniors on the roster, including also Anthony Carrasquillo, Tristen Elizalde, Matthew Hartwell and Brandon Murphy.

Being that senior-laden helped the team through that early bump in the road, Kessler said. 

Having that experience also doesn’t hurt when it comes to adjusting to whatever style of play a game may take on. Behind its Big 3, Nouvel can certainly score, averaging 65.3 points per game on the season and 70 ppg during their win streak. 

But Nouvel also can fall back on its defense those nights when shots aren’t going down, which the Panthers feel will be key to a potential postseason run in Division 4.

Kessler said a pair of wins during the streak – 69-60 against Imlay City on Dec. 29 and 73-31 against Standish-Sterling on Jan. 16 – showed his team’s versatility.

“Standish has been good in our conference for the last four to five years,” Kessler said. “We out-rebounded them and held them to only 31 points. I thought we were a gritty, tough team that night. The Imlay City game, we won with our skill. We were tough, too, but we spread them out and we hit 3s. We were able to guard their 6-7 wing with Tristen Elizalde – he’s 5-11. He’s tough as nails. He can guard any position on the floor.”

As it’s all coming together for the Panthers as a team, the individual milestones also are being reached. 

MJ Yeager set the school scoring record in that game against Standish, passing the previous mark of 1,302 set by Nouvel legend Preston Murphy during the early 1990s. Murphy is currently on Nate Oats’ coaching staff at Alabama and played collegiately at Rhode Island. 

Panthers senior Matthew Hartwell drives into the paint against Michigan Lutheran Seminary on Friday.“I actually know (Murphy),” Yeager said. “He came over to my house and I played basketball with his kid.

“(The record) was a great accomplishment and a great feeling. I’ve always been a competitor, so achieving stuff like that, it’s a good feeling.”

The record began to come into focus for Yeager when he crossed the 1,000-point threshold during his junior season. 

One thing that’s stuck out to him in hitting both marks is the reaction of Donny. He said he can’t wait to experience something similar when Donny crosses 1,000 points, maybe as soon as Friday.

“I feel like that’s going to help both of us realize the hours we put in together every single day have paid off,” MJ Yeager said. “I heard him talking about how great of a brother it made him feel like, and I’m hoping I can feel that when he achieves it.”

Donny echoed that sentiment. 

“Honestly, to see him achieve 1,000 last year and the school record this year, it was really rewarding for me, as well,” he said. “We’ve grown up together, and I want to see him do good in everything he does. It’s a blessing to be able to do this with him.”

When it comes to his own potential milestone, Donny said it would mean a lot to share that honor with his brother.

But he was quick to point out the credit goes beyond the Yeager household.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it without my supporting cast,” he said. “None of it would be possible without them. It’s really exciting. It shows what hard work and dedication can get you. And it’s good for all the young kids coming up to see that.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Nouvel Catholic Central senior guard MJ Yeager drives past a defender during a game against Cass City at the O'Neal Classic Tournament on Dec. 2 at Saginaw Valley State University. (Middle) Twin brother Donny Yeager drives past an Essexville Garber defender during his team’s Nov. 28 opener. (Below) Panthers senior Matthew Hartwell drives into the paint against Michigan Lutheran Seminary on Friday. (Photos by Michael Kolleth Photography.)

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.)