E-TC, Dollar Bay prove good ball exists in the CC

Ewen-Trout Creek's Jake Witt, left, and Dollar Bay's Devin Schmitz will lead their teams into the Feb. 7 matchup at the Wood Gym. (jason Juno/Daily Globe)

Today’s column is the first piece of previews for Wednesday’s matchup at Michigan Tech between No. 1 Ewen-Trout Creek and No. 1 Dollar Bay. Tuesday will include previews from each team, and Wednesday will feature the opinions of area coaches about how they think the game will play out.

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HOUGHTON — Like it or not, there’s a negative stigma attached to boys basketball in the Copper Country. Part of it is because this area hasn’t won a regional title since Ewen-Trout Creek did in 2008 and Houghton in 2007. Regionals serve as the proving ground for respective areas of the U.P.; lose there, and it’s hard to garner respect. So no matter how good a team may be around here during the regular season, it’s the same dismissive argument from those in the central U.P.: “They don’t play anyone.” 

It’s still to be determined if a team from this area can change that narrative this year. But until then, Wednesday’s showdown between No. 1 Ewen-Trout Creek (13-0) and No. 1 Dollar Bay (11-0) at Michigan Tech will showcase the area’s talent and serve as a step in the right direction towards legitimizing Copper Country boys basketball.

“We’re probably looked at as the little brother to Mid-Pen or GNC basketball,” Houghton coach Jared Lawson said of the area compared to central U.P. conferences. “To have any hype around a game or have any interest in what’s going on up here is huge for any player and any team that plays Copper Country basketball. It shows that we have guys that can play and that we’re not always going to be looked at as just hockey country, because we have guys who can play basketball.”

The names you may be familiar with include Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jake Witt, who is signed to play basketball at Michigan Tech next season, and Dollar Bay’s Devin Schmitz and Jaden Janke. Witt and Schmitz earned All-U.P. Class D First Team honors last season and are primed for Dream Team consideration this year, while Janke was a Class D Second Team selection last season. 

Then there’s eighth-grader Jaden Borseth who is shaping up to be the next premier talent at E-TC. He’s shown no reservations about playing at the varsity level and has scored in double figures in each of the last six games, while E-TC junior guard Eli Nordine has been heating up from 3, making 10 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc during last week’s wins over Ontonagon (77-45) and Jeffers (71-41). 

The collection of top-tier talent is drawing interest from across the midwest — not just the U.P. A man from Dansville is driving over 500 miles to watch Wednesday’s game, and Dollar Bay coach Jesse Kentala’s neighbors are coming up from Indiana to watch, too.

“It’s good to see some basketball getting talked about,” Calumet coach Mike Ojala said. “In general in the area, there’s a lot of good ball this year, and I think it’s good for both of those teams. Dollar Bay and Jesse have gone through some rough years building up with this team. There’s a lot of pride with them and their basketball community.

“Of course, no area has more pride in what they do in their basketball program than E-TC, so for those communities, I think it’s great. And I think it’s great just in general for the whole Copper Country to be interested in a big game.”

As far as implications go, Wednesday’s game will likely decide the Copper Mountain Conference champion. Both E-TC and Dollar Bay are currently three games ahead in the loss column of the next best teams.

On a larger scale, the game has major poll implications. It’s the first time in recent history two top-ranked teams from the Copper Country will meet during the regular season. It will also be a matchup of two state-ranked teams, with E-TC ranked No. 2 in Class D in the latest Associated Press poll and Dollar Bay at No. 8. 

A matchup of two top high school teams playing against each other is a rare occasion, but even rarer in the U.P. and especially in the Copper Country. E-TC coach Brad Besonen believes games like this have the potential to grow interest amongst younger basketball players. 

“I was looking at these young Jeffers kids who are good elementary players, and having a game like that where everyone knows where the teams are ranked and there are marquee players, I think it’s awesome to be a kid to be able to go to that game,” Besonen said after his team’s win over Jeffers on Friday. “It’s cool for the area and it’s definitely not going to hurt people wanting to get into the gym and be players in the Copper Country.”

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When watching teams and trying to judge just how good they are, I like to compare them to my high school teams at Bark River-Harris. We were pretty good, winning a regional title in 2009 and finishing in the regional finals the following season. Our teams were ranked in the top 10 in the state and usually near the top of the U.P. poll.

So how would we stack up against today’s E-TC and Dollar Bay teams?

We would likely lose. I feel no shame in admitting it. We would have no answer for Witt on either end of the floor. And despite being a stronger, faster version of my high school self, I struggled to guard Schmitz at open gyms. The rest of the Blue Bolts’ speed would give us issues as well.

I was once one of those people who scoffed at Copper Country basketball. That was before I came here and saw there is a legit talent pool in the area. Now, it’s time for the rest of the U.P. to see it, too.