E-TC’s Witt performs better on big stage this time around

Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jake Witt drives to the basket as Devin Schmitz, right, and Brandon Thompson defend Wednesday at the Wood Gym. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — Naturally, attention follows the best high school athletes. In the U.P., they’re discussed from town to town while their legend grows with each feat throughout a season. So when those athletes play on a major stage in front of new people for the first time, plenty of the crowd’s focus is on them as they look to make their own judgments about a player who hails from a different part of the U.P. 

The first time Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jake Witt faced this, the pressure of playing in front of over 1,000 people got to him. Nerves settled in and he scored just nine points on 4 of 17 shots in a 63-56 loss to Rapid River in a regional semifinal last year at Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium in Negaunee. Those who followed Witt understood that performance was not indicative of the type of player he is. 

Before Wednesday’s showdown against Dollar Bay at Michigan Tech, Witt averaged the same astronomical numbers (27 points, 16 rebounds per game) that once again put him in the same discussion as one of the top players in the U.P. So 3,276 people flocked to the Wood Gym to witness a battle of No. 1 teams and to see just how good the 6-foot-7 center from Ewen truly is.

Pretty damn good. 

He dunked, he blocked shots and drew numerous “oohs” and “aahs” from a crowd that was enamored with his athleticism and strength. The Michigan Tech signee finished the night with 20 points (8 of 15 shooting), 16 rebounds and four blocks in his team’s 51-42 loss to Dollar Bay. 

“I knew I was better than last year,” said Witt, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Wednesday. “I was more ready and more prepared for this game. Felt a lot more comfortable just playing my game.”

As the lone senior on E-TC’s roster, Witt appeared to be the least fazed by the atmosphere. He scored nine of his team’s 13 first-half points and eventually started running the point and attacking the basket off the dribble. 

“I thought he was aggressive right from the get-go. He was the only one willing to get the (ball) and try to do something with it,” E-TC coach Brad Besonen said.

Dollar Bay made it difficult for E-TC to get Witt the ball on the block. Senior Brandon Thompson sat on Witt’s hip and stretched an arm across to deny the entrance pass, while another Dollar Bay defender would sag off his man and front Witt to make it even more difficult to pass him the ball. And a lob over the top wasn’t practical, either, with Dollar Bay flying over for back-side help to knock the pass away. 

But one time, that back-side help wasn’t there and it resulted in Witt’s only dunk of the night. An inbounds pass from the sideline from eight-grader Jaden Borseth went over the top to Witt, who finished with a two-handed slam to cap a 7-0 run and trim Dollar Bay’s lead to 30-20.

“When he had that dunk, there was pop in our step and we livened up,” Besonen said. “We needed a couple more of those spark plays early on to snap us out of that big-game fog.”

Then there was the dominating stretch by Witt that should be remembered the next time anyone wants to discuss the top players in the U.P. Down 46-30 at the start of the fourth quarter, Witt went on a 7-0 run by himself. First, he finished a putback at the rim before blocking a shot on the other end of the floor. On the next trip down, he swished a 3 off a catch-and-shoot at the top of the key. Witt then capped the run with a pull-up midrange jumper over his defender. It was a sequence where it was evident Witt realized he was the best player on the floor, and it was time for him to try to take the game over.

“He’s gotta think that way because he absolutely is (the best player),” Besonen said. “Not just for his own psyche to do that, but for our team’s psyche. Our guys play loose when he does something.”

Once Dollar Bay’s Devin Schmitz converted a basket for a 50-42 lead with 2:32 to play, many of the 3,276 began to make their way to the exits. It made sense, because some had a long drive ahead of them, traveling as far as Ironwood or Bark River for Wednesday’s showdown. When they return home and the next time a discussion about the top players in the U.P. comes up, they can bring up Jake Witt’s name themselves.