E-TC’s Witt dominates while keeping low profile
ESCANABA — You would think it difficult to be a 6-foot-7 athlete and weigh 235 pounds and not be known outside your home area.
It can happen. And it did happen.
Jake Witt has basically flown under the radar of high school sports aficionados heading into the final months of his high school career. That despite the fact he is perhaps the premier senior athlete in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and among the best in the state.
The Ewen-Trout Creek senior has scored more than 1,000 points and is close four rebounds from 1,000 in basketball. He is a two-time eight-player all-state football selection, in the only two seasons he played football.
He lives about 10 miles from tiny Ewen, where E-TC is located on M-28 about 55 miles from the peninsula’s western border with Wisconsin. The lack of top-notch competition is also likely a factor in his lack of recognition.
Only a handful of colleges even knew about him, in either sport, primarily because of location and the fact he did not participate in the travel ball circuit. Michigan Tech University, about 70 miles north of his home, knew all about him and offered him a basketball scholarship, which has already been signed.
Northern Michigan University, about 110 miles east in Marquette, was in football contact with him before basketball got on board. NMU’s basketball team was Witt’s second choice behind Tech, where he had participated in some team camps.
Wisconsin-Green Bay was the lone Division I school on his trail, although Northwestern University showed some initial interest. GLIAC members Ferris State and Grand Valley State were also interested.
“It was nice not having as much attention and having a low profile,” Witt said a day after the Panthers beat Bessemer 63-59 to raise its record to 4-0 this season. E-TC is now 6-0 so far. “It was nice playing on a team that does not have much hype. I can just go out and play.”
Despite the low profile, it is surprising he escaped notice on the recruiting trail. After all, how many players his size run 4.8 in the 40-yard dash, are used as the primary ball handler on the press break, shoot 3-point field goals with 50 percent accuracy and dominate inside despite constant double-and-triple team defenses.
“He is a big-time athlete, a big-time performer in the U.P.,” said veteran Tech coach Kevin Luke. “He is bigger, faster and stronger than anybody up here.”
With that pedigree, it is surprising Witt escaped the attention of the major schools, even from Michigan State and U.P. native Tom Izzo, the Spartans’ Hall of Fame coach. The U.P. is far from even the outlying recruiting paths, is not known as a breeding ground for high-caliber athletes and Witt has not played in Lower Michigan or Wisconsin.
“If he played just one summer of AAU ball (or played downstate) he would have had a ton of Division I schools after him,” said E-TC coach Brad Besonen, adding “his location and not advertising himself” were factors in his lack of attention.
Witt had an opportunity to join a travel team in Escanaba but declined because of six-hour round-trip drives for practice on Wednesday and Sunday nights in addition to lengthy travel for games. “It was mainly my location,” he said of avoiding travel teams.
The teams that did not chase Witt may have missed someone who could be a big contributor.
“We rely on him for everything,” said Besonen, citing his protection of the basket that includes blocking shots and/or forcing shot adjustments, ball-handling and floor-wide scoring skill. “He is very agile, has great feet and excellent body control.”
Besonen said Witt’s lack of “advertising himself” is because of strong family ties, which even was a factor in his decision to stay within about five hours of home, which eliminated most D-1 schools. “He likes to hang out with his family (and friends), bass fish and weight lift.
“He is a total throwback kid from 30-40 years ago,” said Besonen. “He is definitely not a look-at-me-guy.”
As a powerful presence, Witt draws major defensive attention and through his unselfishness, he has developed into an excellent passer. “Our biggest problem is not being able to take him out for a lot of rest. He has a big frame and he gets gassed. We don’t play slow,” said Besonen.
This season Witt is averaging 31 points and 14 rebounds a game. In football, in a run-oriented offense that had E-TC students playing for Ontonagon in a co-op arrangement, 13 of his 28 pass receptions were touchdowns and he covered about 600 yards. Last year at E-TC he set a state record with 25 TD catches while nabbing 71 passes for 1,698 yards.
Playing college football was considered, but he had 12 years of basketball experience. With only two years of gridiron experience and at the eight-player level, he probably would have been a football redshirt and may have bulked up to play tackle, although his desire was to be a tight end and catch passes.
Tech gained his scholarship signature because of its’ splendid academic reputation. “After college and entering the workforce, the degree you get up there (in Houghton) is worth so much,” said Witt, who is still pondering his academic direction.
“I am definitely excited to finish my senior year with my college decision already made,” said Witt, who is looking forward to working with Tech assistant coach Josh Buettner, a former GLIAC all-star for the Huskies. “Josh is one of the best big-men coaches in the GLIAC and coach Luke is also a very good coach.”
Luke said “Buettner is good at developing big kids.”
Witt, who is a good fit for the blue-collar Tech brand of basketball, will likely play a 3-4 spot with the ability to venture outside to get mismatch situations. “We feel like we are getting a good ball player, a great blue chipper,” said Luke.
After towering over his prep opponents, Witt knows it will be an adjustment to battle players of equal size or bigger when he gets to Tech. “It will take a lot of getting used to playing bigger guys,” he said, expecting to get more one-on-one opportunities than in high school.
Besonen firmly believes Witt will make the adjustment to the college level. “They could benefit from him being there right now. Add another year and offseason conditioning and he could be helpful next year,” said Besonen.
“He is still building (his game). The adjustment level will be huge for him, especially at his position” said Besonen, noting he must improve his footwork. “His feet are coordinated and quick.”
Witt may be virtually unknown now, but clearly, he has the potential to become well known.
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Editor’s note: This article was written by retired Escanaba Daily Press sports editor Dennis Grall for the MHSAA website Second Half.