With a strong tradition of guards, E-TC is now led by Jake Witt, who is making waves in Ewen and creating a case as the U.P.'s best big

Jason Juno/Daily Globe (Ironwood) Ewen-Trout Creek's Jake Witt shoots over Dollar Bay's Jacob Iacono Feb. 7 in Ewen.

EWEN — Even by small-town standards in the U.P., Ewen is an exceptional case. You can take M-28 and drive through part of downtown Ewen in less than 20 seconds. On the short journey, you see a few hardware stores, a gas station, a Ford dealership and some houses scattered about; that’s it. And if any of the 426 people in the town need to pick up the week’s groceries, they have to drive at least an hour to Houghton, Ironwood or Rhinelander. 

But it’s here, in this remote town in the U.P., where one of the most intriguing U.P. prospects in the class of 2018 attends school at Ewen-Trout Creek. The 6-foot-7 Jake Witt has always drawn the attention of opposing defenses, and now he’s beginning to be noticed by colleges like the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Northwestern University and other schools across Michigan. 

– – – 

The first thing one needs to do when considering Witt is to reject all prior notions of what a traditional U.P. big man is like. You know the type. The lumbering kids who always were the tallest ones in their class growing up, so they never developed any real post moves by the time they were on varsity because they never had to. Their entire career could be summarized as this: sit on the block and call for the ball so they can drop-step one way — and one way only — to shoot over someone. 

No, that’s not Witt and it never has been. From elementary school to the eighth grade, Witt played guard and spent most of his time leading fast breaks and developing handles on the perimeter. He still does those things, but now it’s as a 6-foot-7, 230-pound freight train, who averages 24 points and over 18 rebounds per game.

“He has God-given ability,” E-TC coach Brad Besonen said. “Him and Austin (Berglund) were the guards all the time growing up, so he handled the ball a ton. 

“It’s his shooting that has really come on.”

Besonen took notice of Witt’s ability to shoot from the perimeter when Witt was messing around during lunch hour, or before practice, and was making numerous 3s. His shooting has progressed enough over the last six months that E-TC starts the game by running him off a screen to get a 3-point look from the top of the key after he wins the tip. On the season, Witt is 13 of 25 from 3-point range (52 percent), making Besonen wish he’d take more from beyond the arc. 

But don’t let the versatile skillset fool you. Witt is still at his best on the block, where he can utilize his overpowering strength and athleticism to go along with his soft touch. No single defender on the western end of the U.P. can hang with him on the block — and coaches aren’t stubborn enough to try. By the time this season’s done, E-TC will likely have set a record for the number of triangle-and-2 defenses faced in a season. Sometimes, like on Feb. 7 against the Dollar Bay Blue Bolts, Witt was constantly double-teamed even when he was standing on the perimeter without the ball.

“It does get frustrating but it’s just something you have to play through as a player when your team needs you,” Witt said of the defensive attention. “I try not to let it get to me because that won’t help in the long run.”

Against Dollar Bay, one of the top teams in the Copper Mountain Conference, Witt finished with 22 points on 9 of 18 shooting, 21 rebounds and four blocks — all while battling the flu.

– – –

Before he touches a basketball in pregame warmups, it’s not difficult to see Witt’s athletic gifts. What stands out more than his height may be his bulky frame.

“Just in his uniform when he comes out on the floor, it’ll make you look,” Besonen said.

The weight lifting inspiration comes from his Dad, Bill, who is a lifetime lifter and was a 450-pound bench presser in his prime. But what really motivated Witt to hit the gym hard was last year’s 46-42 loss to the Forest Park Trojans — a traditional football powerhouse built on the strength of its lifting program — in the basketball district finals.

The day after E-TC’s season ended, Witt was in the weight room. 

“I think after seeing what a lot of strength and size with weight lifting can do with that type of team, that made me want to get bigger and stronger for next season,” Witt says. “I think lifting really changed my game and made me more of an athlete. Everyone was pretty much down after that loss. Just thought of something that could help us next year if we could beat that team.”

After lifting four weeks in the offseason, Witt maxed out at 270 on the bench press and 350 on the squat. When colleges began asking for his measurables, he was hand-timed in the 40-yard dash where he ran a 4.48 and 4.52. His standing vertical is 30 inches, which is higher than 18 guys who tested at the 2016 NBA Draft Combine.

– – – 

If you’re from the U.P. and can dunk, there’s always a neat origin story behind your first dunk. Always. 

Witt’s came in eighth grade during a game of 21 with his friends. He drove in, saw the ball was over the rim and slammed it home. 

“Everybody was going crazy there because it was surprising to see someone from Ewen dunk in eighth grade,” Witt said.

His first in-game dunk came as a freshman against the Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes. As a sophomore against the Baraga Vikings on E-TC’s Silent Night game, he had the gym rocking when he recorded a steal and went the length of the court before slamming a two-handed tomahawk dunk. And this year, he posterized someone. 

On Dec. 16 in the second quarter against the Bessemer Speedboys, Witt caught a lob over the top on the block and drop-stepped as a Bessemer help defender likely had no idea what was to come next. Witt rose up in the air while the defender attempted to meet him at the rim; Witt slammed down a two-handed dunk over the Bessemer kid for a play that was worthy of a spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10. 

That Bessemer defender likely won’t be the last victim of Witt’s, and he certainly wasn’t the first. As it turns out, not even Witt’s teammates can escape his dunking prowess. 

“It’s pretty funny when he tries to dunk hard on us all the time in practice,” E-TC sophomore Eli Nordine said. “He got me once off an alley-oop pass. I don’t even know why I jumped, but I jumped.”

Now, Nordine and Berglund have begun taking advantage of Witt’s leaping ability by hitting him with alley-oops. It started against Republic-Michigamme on Jan. 20 when they completed their first alley-oop and managed to get it broadcasted on the TV 6 evening news. A week later against L’Anse, Nordine and Berglund each hit Witt twice with highlight-reel worthy alley-oops. 

“In practice, we’d work on some nasty ones,” Nordine said. “We get in games and it’s serious and really fun. It gets the crowd pumped up and switches the energy to our side.”

– – – 

Brad Besonen has the same answer cued up for any college coach, or any person in general, that asks what type of person Witt is. 

“He’s the kind of kid that if you have a daughter, that’s the kind of guy you want her to marry,” he said. “In school, he’s a perfect role model for younger students. All the younger kids come up to him and he doesn’t brush them aside. He’ll talk to them and goof around a little bit.”

Lately, Besonen has been getting asked that question more and more by college coaches, thanks to a highlight video. 

Having not played AAU or travel ball, few schools have seen Witt or know about the quiet kid in Ewen. Braeden Proctor of Prep Hoops Michigan messaged Witt on Twitter and asked him if he had a highlight reel he could share. Witt did not; therefore, Besonen made one and Proctor posted it, and the 10-minute video took on a life of its own. 

As Besonen tells it, T.J. Kelley, who works as a recruiting service for Inside Sports, saw the video and sent it to schools in the Big Ten, Horizon League and MAC. Soon after was when Besonen started getting texts from Northwestern. 

“The last two weeks have been crazy,” Besonen said. “Green Bay was the first D1 contact. Then after the highlight tape went out, we got a call from Northwestern. That was really cool. Not used to talking to someone and having them say they’re going to their shootaround in Purdue for their game tonight.”

In addition to Northwestern and UWGB, the list of schools that have begun recruiting Witt includes: Michigan Tech University, Cornerstone University, Lawrence Tech University and Ferris State University. 

But Witt is keeping his options open for now. He is still debating on a major after narrowing it down to exercise science, forestry and civil engineering.

“I really have no plans as of right now,” he said. “I think if I go Division II for basketball, Tech will be my first option. I like the academics there and it’s a great school for sports. That might be my number one option for all of basketball right now. It’s close to home.”

However, Besonen believes Witt’s greatest potential may lie in football. Witt played his first season of organized football last year after having filled out his tall frame. In eight-person football, he caught 71 passes for 1,698 yards and 25 touchdowns. And before you say, “Yeah, well that’s eight-person football.” Consider that he drew praise for his raw skills at Central Michigan’s Junior Day. 

“Derek Frazier, their offensive line coach and recruiting coach from the U.P., talked to me and said he watched my films,” Witt said. “He said I scratched the surface of what I could do as a football player since it’s my first year. 

“He chuckled when I told him our team just threw the ball up to me, and I went up and tried to catch it over the other team.”

– – – 

Witt is eight points away from the 1,000-point milestone and could reach that mark Friday in Baraga. If his rebounding numbers stay on track, he’ll reach 1,000-career rebounds in his senior season. Individual achievements are nice, but Witt’s main goal is to bring some hardware back to Ewen.

“Our goal is to get to regionals this year,” he said. “I think we can make regionals if we play well against teams in our district.”

Witt was in attendance at Negaunee when the North Central Jets ran the Forest Park Trojans off the court in a dominating 75-45 win for the regional title last season on March 16. The Jets may have a lock on this year’s regional, but next year it becomes more open to the field, and this young E-TC squad led by Witt could be a major player next year in March. 

Especially if he reaches his full potential.

“I truly feel that if he attacks his offseason, he could legitimately be one of the better kids to ever come out of the U.P.,” Besonen said. “Athletically, he’ll be the best athlete to ever come out of our school, and we have a tradition of basketball kids who did some big things beyond high school. 

“That combination of size, strength and athleticism — and that basketball skill to go with it — is amazing.”