Veteran Dollar Bay prepared for task of stopping Witt, E-TC’s guards

HOUGHTON — Jesse Kentala must not be a very superstitious man. Or maybe he’s just good at hiding it. When his Dollar Bay Blue Bolts took on Ewen-Trout Creek last season, the odds seemed to be against them, but the coach remained calm — at least on the exterior.

As they drove to Ewen, a massive snowstorm began, dumping down on the bus and collecting on the roads. Kentala was fielding calls from the referees telling him they should turn the bus around. But the Blue Bolts wouldn’t be stopped. 

When the game began, then-junior Brandon Thompson, who had already been feeling ill, tore his meniscus. Another blow to the Blue Bolts, but they would not be stopped. 

Then, in the fourth quarter, Dollar Bay found itself down nine points. But the Blue Bolts would not be stopped. 

“It kind of seemed like all of the omens were stacked against us, but we ended up pulling it off,” Kentala said. 

They ended up winning that game 59-56. But that was then, and this is now. 

This time E-TC would like nothing more than to stop the Blue Bolts. And this time, the game has far greater implications.

The two undefeated teams are tied for No. 1 in the U.P., with E-TC ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Class D state poll, and Dollar Bay falling in at No. 6. The victor will likely win the conference, gain momentum for the postseason, and retain bragging rights. What’s more, the contest will be hosted at Michigan Tech, and tickets can be purchased in advance online — unheard of for a regular-season high school game. 

If Kentala was willing to drive through a questionable-at-best snowstorm last season, imagine what he would do for the game this year. 

Turns out, he and the Blue Bolts are doing a lot. 

That starts with scouting. Kentala and his staff have watched the Panthers three times. He knows that sounds crazy, but the coach promises there is a method to his madness — and it wasn’t all about scouting E-TC. Sure, that was an important draw, but the E-TC contests allowed him to scout other key opponents, like Ontonagon and Wakefield-Marenisco as well. 

“To be honest we take scouting pretty seriously,” Kentala said. “We watch a lot of film, we do a lot of stats, we over prepare. I don’t know if that is always a good thing, but we like to know who we are going to face.”

Plus, Kentala may be a coach, but he’s also a basketball fan.

“Jake Witt is worth the price of admission,” he said. “Even as an opposing coach I can say that.”

Worth the price of admission and worth the extra scouting, because if Dollar Bay is going to beat E-TC for the second year in a row, the Blue Bolts will need to at least partially contain Witt. 

But stopping the Michigan Tech signee is easier said than done. Witt is a double-double factory who averages 27.2 points and 16 rebounds per game and is a force on both offense and defense.

“After last year, I knew if Jake Witt got more aggressive, we would be in trouble,” Kentala said. “And he got more aggressive.”

The Blue Bolts have been devoting a good chunk of their practice time to defensive schemes, because Kentala believes in order to stop Witt, they will have to throw multiple formations and attacks at him. 

Changing their approach is something new for a Dollar Bay team that likes to stick to what they know, and Kentala will admit that it hasn’t been easy.

“Our guys are getting frustrated because it is not what we normally do,” he said before practice last Thursday. “We believe in what we believe in. We believe in our style, we believe in our philosophy, and we don’t like to vary. We will adjust a little, but we don’t like to make big adjustments during a game. To prepare for Jake Witt is a major adjustment. We are getting used to how we want to align defensively, but we will get there.”

In addition to defending Witt, the Blue Bolts will have to stop a talented E-TC backcourt. Kentala says junior guard Eli Nordine and eighth-grader Jaden Borseth will be part of their focus, but the guard unit as a whole makes E-TC extra dangerous.

“Their younger guards are what impress me most,” Kentala said. “They are poised, they don’t look to force anything. They know their roles, and that is scary. Those kids with a kid like Jake Witt, you can see why they are undefeated.”

You can also see why Dollar Bay is undefeated, and it starts on the offensive end. The Blue Bolts have two of the Copper Country’s best scorers in Jaden Janke (20.9 PPG.) and Devin Schmitz (18.5 PPG). Jacob Iacono and Thompson are also capable of scoring (Iacono averages 9.5 PPG, and Thompson averages 7.9). Plus, Dollar Bay has Brendan LeClaire holding the team together with his play at the point guard position. Add all that up and you have an explosive offense that scores 80.3 points each time out.

“I never worry about us offensively,” Kentala said. “We shoot, we push, we run. It is no big secret on what we do, but I don’t think our game is predicated on just getting to the rim. So offensively, we are going to make some minor adjustments, because (Witt) is there and he is a big tree, but we are more focused on what we can do defensively.”

The only offensive problem Dollar Bay has had this season comes at the start of games. The Blue Bolts tend to start slowly, pulling away with a massive third-quarter run, but against E-TC, they may not have that luxury. The Panthers aren’t a team that can be given a lead.

“It is all about our mentality and the shots we take in the beginning,” Janke said. “We can’t force shots it the beginning, and we have to let it come to us a little bit more than we have been.”

This time, Dollar Bay (hopefully) won’t have to drive through a snowstorm to play E-TC. Thompson is healthy and eager to play the Panthers again, and the Blue Bolts know how to play on a big stage, after barely losing to North Central in the regional semifinal last season. 

Dollar Bay is ready for Wednesday’s matchup, but chances are, so is E-TC.