Area coaches break down matchup between No. 1 E-TC and No. 1 Dollar Bay

No. 1 Ewen-Trout Creek faces No. 1 Dollar Bay tonight at Michigan Tech at 7:15 p.m. (Illustration done by Bryce Derouin)

HOUGHTON — For the first time in recent history, two Copper Country schools will meet as top-ranked teams in the state tonight at 7:15 p.m. at Michigan Tech. 

It’s No. 1 Ewen-Trout Creek (13-0), and No. 6 Dollar Bay (11-0). 

It’s Jake Witt and Eli Nordine facing off against Devin Schmitz and Jaden Janke, each with supporting casts who can go off in their own right. 

It’s perhaps the biggest regular-season Class D game in the state this year, and it’s happening right here in Houghton. 

“I would think, and I hope, most of our Copper Country schools make their way over there just to support those two teams,” Houghton coach Jared Lawson said. “I think what they’re bringing is a great thing. Plus, you get to see some fantastic players, and it might be one of your only times to do it if you never get to see these guys play. It’s an opportunity to see how good all these guys are.”

Lawson, Calumet coach Mike Ojala and Lake Linden-Hubbell coach Jack Kumpula each have gone against both Dollar Bay and E-TC over the past year and know how difficult the teams can be to game plan for. The coaches break down the matchup and tell you what to watch for between the No.1-ranked teams in the U.P. 

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If you haven’t seen Witt play, here’s your chance. The Michigan Tech signee has been building a case as the best player in the U.P. while averaging 27.2 points and 16 rebounds per game. At an athletic 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, there’s no other player in the U.P. who impacts the game more than Witt. If there’s a stat that can speak to his athleticism, it’s this: in all but three games this season, he’s had at least one dunk. 

For his career to this point, Witt’s recorded 1,521 points and 1,118 rebounds.

Lawson — Houghton scrimmaged E-TC over the holiday break and played Dollar Bay at the Tech Team Camp this past summer: “You have to be accountable of him all over the floor. My biggest takeaway is that he’s so patient. He knows he will see double and triple-teams every night, and he doesn’t force the issue. He’s patient and he trusts his teammates, and I think that makes him even better.

“Then he’s so quick on the block. You fall asleep for even a half second on him, he’s gone. He’s either getting the rebound or dunking it on you. 

“A high school player anywhere in the state of Michigan would be good like that, but we’re talking about a kid from Ewen with the block speed that he has. Up here, it’s tough to handle.”

Ojala — Lost to E-TC twice, 67-55 and 57-56. Scrimmaged Dollar Bay twice — once in the preseason and once during the holiday break: “For us, we never were going to triple-team Witt. We just wanted to make him work hard to get it and play our defense that we normally play. Get over the top the best we could and have our weak-side help underneath the basket. 

“It depends how you want to play it. We figured if we threw two or three guys at him, someone was going to have a big game. We just wanted to play our defense.

“(E-TC) does a nice job on the backside. Double screens and skipping it over the top on us. It’s tougher to close out on those skips than it is when they rotate the ball.”

Kumpula — Lost to E-TC 68-43 and Dollar Bay twice, 71-42 and 93-43: “You can’t do anything without Jake Witt affecting what you do. On offense, you have to know where he is and on defense, you have to know where he is. You’re constantly trying to account for him, and he creates so many problems for you.

“For a school like us to handle a true Division II athlete like that is tough. We’ve had kids like (E-TC’s) Dillon Gordon go on and play Division II, but Jake is a whole different level. His size and strength and ability just makes it really unfair for us to deal with that.”

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Dollar Bay features a top scoring duo in Jaden Janke (20.5) and Devin Schmitz (18.5). Both have eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring mark. Janke has showcased improved athleticism and strength this season to go along with his ability to shoot the 3 (29-68, 43 percent), while Schmitz has always performed well on big stages. You may remember Schmitz as the player who put up 40 against North Central in the regional semifinals last year. And on a night when the Dollar Bay gym was packed to see him score four points to join the 1,000-point club last season, he went off for 43 in a win against Hancock in what Dollar Bay coach Jesse Kentala called “one of the best offensive performances I’ve seen.” Ankle and migraine issues have slowed Schmitz a bit this season, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him have another signature offensive explosion in a high-stakes game. 

In addition to those two, Jacob Iacono (10.7 ppg) and Brandon Thompson (7.5) have shown the ability to score in spurts and lead the offense, while point guard Brendan LeClaire constantly pushes the pace to ignite the Blue Bolts’ patented uptempo style. 

Lawson: “When we played them at team camp, our focus was Janke and Schmitz. We were going to try to let these other guys beat us. But you forget about their speed. It almost runs you down. You’re running through multiple stuff on there. 

“Jesse knows how to get those guys open, so if your defense is not zeroed in and focused, you’re going to lose someone along the line — especially Janke and Schmitz. If you give Schmitz a sliver or opening, he’s going to take it and take advantage of it.”

Ojala: “(E-TC) is going to want to keep Jake around the basket to protect the rim. But Dollar Bay has enough kids that can pull up and hit those 10-15-foot jumpers, and that’s important against Witt. The first game we played (E-TC), Matt (Ojala) got to the rim whenever he wanted but the ball was getting swatted out of bounds (by Witt). That’s a big key for Dollar Bay.”

Kumpula: “I think the biggest thing about Dollar Bay this year is that they’re mature. Last year they knew their roles and relied more on Janke and Schmitz; this year they’re not. All five of those kids can score. They’re much more confident, and nothing really bothers them.”

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Witt’s dominance has plenty to do with E-TC’s emergence as a top team in the U.P., but it’s also thanks in large part to the evolution of the guards. Nordine, Cole Borseth, Tommy Cousineau and Ryan Driesenga play with more confidence on both ends of the floor, whether that means attacking the basket or shooting a 3 without hesitation or accepting the challenge of defending the other team’s top perimeter players. And eighth-grader Jaden Borseth has also seamlessly been integrated as one of E-TC’s top offensive threats and has continued to develop, averaging 15.7 points in the last six games. 

Kumpula: “Jaden Borseth is the next great kid coming out of Ewen. He’s been a difference-maker for them. Whether he can sustain that through the tournament run for them is a difficult thing to do. Eli’s been steady for them, too.”

E-TC’s guards will be facing one of the top backcourts in Class D and how E-TC handles Dollar Bay’s pressure could decide the game. The Blue Bolts run multiple presses in order to push the tempo and turn teams over. The Panthers faced a team like that already in Chassell, and while E-TC won 63-42 behind Witt’s 24 points and 24 rebounds, E-TC turned the ball over 22 times. 

Another key to Dollar Bay’s season has been the big run and third-quarter domination. Dollar Bay has outscored opponents by an average of 20.5 to 9.2 in the third quarter this season. And Kumpula has been on the other end of one of those runs when Dollar Bay looks immortal. The Blue Bolts used a 22-4 run to break open a 14-10 game en route to a 71-42 win.

Kumpula: “It’s tough. They don’t get those dry spells that other teams get. It’s hard. You come out at halftime and think you’re all set, then they start hitting shots and going to the hoop. They’re really tough.

“A kid like Jacob Iacono is tough like that in those runs. He makes every bunny look easy. He’s all over the place, killing us on the boards. We’d get three or four stops and he’d get three or four offensive rebounds. It’s just brutal. 

“They’ll get you a thousand different ways, and it’s so tough to defend them that I don’t know how anyone’s going to beat them.”

Ojala: “The big thing with Dollar Bay is their guard pressure. I think that’s the biggest concern for Ewen is how well their guards handle the relentless pressure Dollar Bay puts on. If they get two or three turnovers on you, then it’s all of a sudden a 7-0 or 8-0 run. They do a nice job with the way they pressure.”

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It’s a long way off, and there are many opponents for each team who would love nothing more than to knock off Dollar Bay or E-TC during March. But the regional final game is scheduled for March 14 in Negaunee, and it could serve as the sequel to tonight’s game if both teams can get that far. 

Before that can even become a realistic possibility, E-TC would have to deal with one of the more difficult paths to Negaunee, with a district-opening game against a solid Forest Park team that has knocked off West Iron County, and North Central on the road. Then face an all-too-familiar Bessemer squad at the House of Noise before the winner of that game would likely host Wakefield-Marenisco for the district title. All three teams are destined to have a winning record and pose their own problems to E-TC. And that’s not counting the regional semifinal against a Skyline Central team. 

As for Dollar Bay, the Blue Bolts open with a Chassell team that features just as much speed and athleticism as they do. An Ontonagon group with enough size to give Dollar Bay trouble could await the Blue Bolts in the district title game. 

Yes, it will be difficult for each team to reach that point. But the possibility of a rematch with far greater stakes has Lawson wondering just how much Kentala and E-TC coach Brad Besonen show each other tonight. 

Lawson: “As a coach, do you go in showing some stuff that you’ve been working on for a couple weeks knowing that you could bump into them? Or do you experiment and just throw some random stuff to see how they react? If they react in a different way than you expect, you could decide not to bring that to regionals if I see them, or decide that you will bring that and put it on in a spur of the moment. 

“It’ll be interesting to see how each coach handles it. It’s a little bit of a chess match, and I’m sure Jesse and Brad are looking forward to maneuvering their pieces a little bit.”