Witt is unique to E-TC’s strong history of guards
EWEN — When Eli Nordine hit Jake Witt for an alley-oop in a summer league game in 2016, coach Brad Besonen quipped that it was the first in Ewen-Trout Creek history.
Except he really wasn’t joking.
Witt has broken the mold of the E-TC standout. For all the great E-TC players, few have been quite like Witt, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound star who has played in the extremely rarified air above the Ewen rims.
“All the other good players we’ve had, it seems like most of them have all been guards – good shooters, good quickness and just good ball-smart guards like that,” Besonen said.
When people think about E-TC basketball, names like Fors and Besonen come to mind first along with LaPlant and Gordon among others.
Besonen expects the name Witt to join that exclusive club. He’s currently at 1,521 points and 1,118 rebounds in his career with a lot of action left in his senior season, where he’s averaging 26.9 points and 16 boards a game. It won’t get any bigger in the regular season than Wednesday night against Dollar Bay in a battle of unbeatens so highly anticipated it’s being played at Michigan Tech.
“Numbers-wise, what he’s done, all the spectacular plays, that’s why our gym has been full,” Besonen said. “It’s not necessarily because we’ve been undefeated. People are coming to see dunks. You just don’t see above the rim action in U.P. hoops at all and then to have it in our little town, it’s something people will be talking about forever.”
Witt has completed a lot of dunks since that summer league game before his junior season. So many that his teammates were teasing him when he went two — two! — games without a dunk.
Gary Fors couldn’t dunk because it wasn’t allowed back then.
Fors was a senior 46 years ago. He was 6-5 and is the most similar E-TC standout Besonen could think of to Witt.
But Fors said he didn’t break out until he went to Lake Superior State, where he’s still the school’s all-time leading scorer.
It’s fair to say Witt has already broken out.
“It’s a pleasure watching Jake,” Fors said Monday. “Fans at E-TC, we’ve been just so blessed to watch somebody with that talent in high school. It just doesn’t come along that often.”
He agreed with Besonen that E-TC has been a guard-heavy school.
“There certainly have been a lot of great guards like Dave Besonen, Mike Ojala, my son Kelsey was all-state,” Fors said. “Dillon Gordon playing at Michigan Tech. Even Brad himself was pretty darn good.”
Besonen has watched tape of the 1972 state championship game, won by E-TC, because his dad was on that team with Fors. Like Fors, Witt will play in the GLIAC – he’s signed to play at Michigan Tech.
Fors said he thinks Witt has a chance to be a great college player, but college requires you to play harder and smarter.
“He is extremely talented,” Fors said. “For being a 6-8 guy, he is so athletic, he can do a lot of things on the court. He’s so strong. His athleticism is fantastic. He’s got a lot of skills already. We’ll see if that will advance to his college career.”
Fors was good in football and track and he could move for his size; both are true with Witt, Besonen said.
“He was similar to Jake where he didn’t just play on the low block, he was very good on the perimeter,” Besonen said. “He was really good on the baseline because he could step out and shoot and drive it, finish really well, just kind of a crafty lefty for a bigger guy, too.”
Witt is fantastic away from the basket. In fact, E-TC seems to be at its most unbeatable when Witt is hitting mid-range and 3-point shots. He was doing just that against Ontonagon last week, leading a Gladiator player to look to the bench and say, ‘What am I supposed to do?'”
“It really makes us as a team really, really difficult to guard,” Besonen said. “It’s easy to double him when he’s on the block and you can’t double him out in space, out on the perimeter because it opens up too much diving action or driving action for our guards and our quick guys.
“He’s just a special talent. He shoots a lot, he’s got great shooting form, so that was never a hitch along the way.”
Growing up, Witt didn’t play with a lot of kids with guard skills, so even though he was a big guy, he had to play guard, something Besonen thinks all young bigs should do to learn that part of the game as well.
“I think that has a lot to do with why Jake is so skilled with the ball in his hands, out in space, full-court stuff and everything,” Besonen said. “He’s just been gifted with amazing coordination for a bigger kid … guy. I can’t call him a kid anymore.”
The other close comparison to Witt as an all-around athlete is Mike Ojala (1991), now Calumet’s coach, Besonen said.
The E-TC player he’s heard called one of the best to play in the U.P. is his uncle Dave, who led the Panthers to the state championship game in 1982, an E-TC loss.
But Besonen and Ojala were both guards. Chase Leskela had an all-state senior season several years ago, and he was an inside player. But his career wasn’t quite at Witt’s level.
Both Fors and Dave Besonen saw their careers end in the state finals. Coach Besonen points out both of those teams were full of seniors. With E-TC down to a high school student population in the 70s, that’s probably not going to happen much anymore. Witt has been playing with younger players the last couple of years. So to hold him to that standard is probably a bit unfair. Especially with Southfield Christian and its two Division I prospects likely waiting for a U.P. team in the state semifinal.
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No matter what happens Wednesday, it’s been a special regular season already for the Panthers. Besonen thought if the Panthers had four losses and were playing well at this point, they’d be primed for the stretch run.
Calumet almost gave their record one blemish. The unlikely comeback was put into motion by- who else? – Witt, who ran the ball down the court and hit a transition 3 to pull the Panthers within one. E-TC eventually got a turnover and pulled off the comeback.
But that game also told a lot about Witt. He didn’t celebrate his own 3, but he celebrated his teammates’ big plays down the stretch.
“He hit probably the biggest shot I’ve seen in our gym in the Calumet game and his reaction was just nothing,” Besonen said. “He just turned around and came to the bench after we called timeout. It’s unreal. But, yeah, if one of his teammates’ scores, he’s all over them and he’s celebrating with them and for them. He’s really good especially with some of the bench guys that might not see the floor as much. If they make a play, he’s all over that and raising his arms and cheering for them. You don’t see that with many real good high school players on other teams. It’s unfortunate because it creates an awesome atmosphere.”
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His personality is the opposite, he’s normally pretty quiet. But that has changed this year. He’s been willing to talk on the floor and be positive all the time.
“Just watching him communicate defensively and just running the zone and being the field general defensively was really fun,” Besonen said.
“There were three different occasions, it was really loud in the gym, we had a nice crowd, where he had his hands around his mouth, yelling at kids on the perimeter. That was really fun to see.”