After years of hard work, Dollar Bay sees results

Jesse Kentala celebrates with the Class D trophy on March 10 after the Blue Bolts won the district last season. Kentala was named Copper Mountain Coach of the Year this season. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

DOLLAR BAY — He had it written. Things had just gotten too hard. There were too many losses and not enough wins. Too many questions and not enough answers. Too many unknowns and not enough certainties. Was he doing this right? Would they ever win? Was he hurting the kids? Was he even a good coach? Would the Blue Bolts be better off without him?

So Jesse Kentala wrote his resignation letter, and he was ready to turn it in.

But something stopped him — a combination of things, really.

First, it was a conversation with Dollar Bay’s athletic director, then there was Kentala’s personality — “too arrogant and too ignorant,” he said about his younger self. But mostly it was the kids. He knew what he had coming up, and he knew just how good the Blue Bolts could be.

– – –

Dollar Bay’s Devin Schmitz shoots over Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jake Witt Wednesday at the Wood Gym. (Jason Juno/Daily Globe (Ironwood))

Dollar Bay’s gym is pocket-sized. When you walk in it feels like a miniature model of a real gym. It has eight rows of blue bleachers on one side and virtually no space between the sidelines and the walls. It’s a small-time gym, seemingly perfect for a small-time program. Dollar Bay is not small time. The undefeated Blue Bolts are No. 1 in the U.P. and have rarely been challenged this season, blowing teams out by upwards of 30 points.

But this gym has housed the Blue Bolts long before they were big-time, back when they were tiny — literally, as in when they were little kids.

Now they are the main attraction, but years ago this season’s team served as the halftime entertainment. At each Dollar Bay game, elementary school kids play a game during the break.

Halftime is when people get snacks, check their phones and take bathroom breaks, but to the little Blue Bolts, it was the highlight of their week.

They were always excited to show off their skills and would spend the days before practicing plays.

Chassell’s Elijah Soumis and Dollar Bay’s Jacob Iacono battle for a rebound Friday in Chassell. (Daily Mining Gazette/Bryce Derouin)

A particular favorite was when Devin Schmitz would throw an alley-oop to Jaden Janke. As Janke describes it, he would jump about an inch and barely convert the basket, but they were proud nonetheless.

“We thought it was the coolest thing,” Brendan LeClaire said shaking his head.

But that’s the way it is with Dollar Bay. Not the awkward alley-oop between two fifth-graders — that isn’t a program staple — but the idea that every success they have is cool because they do it together.

That’ll happen when you spend every moment of your lives in each other’s company like the Blue Bolts do. They go to school together, they play ball together, they eat together, and that’s the way it’s always been.

When they were kids, they spent so much time playing at Michigan Tech’s SDC that they eventually had to get memberships. They even had birthday parties there, and when they weren’t playing real basketball, they were in the pool playing on a mini hoop.

Dollar Bay's Jacob Iacono rises for a layup as Ewen-Trout Creeks' Jake Witt defends at the Wood Gym on Feb. 7.

Dollar Bay is so good in part because the players are inseparable. After spending so much time together, they understand the inner workings of each other’s minds and are able to understand when and where their teammates will be on the court.

“Playing with these guys has been, and will be, one of the best memories of my life. Moving on, and playing on a different team after high school is going to be so different because I’ve played with them my entire life,” Jacob Iacono said.

– – –

Everyone knows what Dollar Bay will do when the team steps on the court. The Blue Bolts are going to run the floor, press, and push the ball for easy baskets. They make minor adjustments for opponents, but never anything extreme. All of their game films are online, easily accessible for any opposing coach, but game after game it doesn’t seem to matter. The Blue Bolts have essentially given each team a guidebook to how they’ll play, and they still win by double digits. And that is what Kentala has wanted all along since he took over the program in 2006.

“We want teams to prepare for us,” he said. “We don’t always want to be preparing for teams all the time. We want teams to come in and say, ‘Whoa, we are playing Dollar Bay. What are we going to do?’ “

Dollar Bay’s Brendan LeClaire drives past E-TC’s Jaden Borseth on Wednesday at Michigan Tech. (David Archambeau/ Daily Mining Gazette)

It wasn’t always like that. A few years ago it was more along the lines of, “Oh, we are playing Dollar Bay, that will be an easy win.”

Kentala isn’t afraid to admit a lot of that was because of him. As a new coach, he didn’t really know what he was getting into, and during his first two seasons, he was lulled into a false sense of security. In his first year, the Blue Bolts had a winning record, and the second, they won a district game. But after that Kentala looked down the line and realized he didn’t have any talent coming up. Good kids, yes. But good basketball players? No. So they had one-win, two-win seasons.

“It is hard to lose,” Kentala said. “But honestly, it is so much harder to win.”

It doesn’t help that at Dollar Bay, the odds are stacked against him.

There are 100 kids enrolled in the high school and half can’t play sports due to religious reasons. After that, only half are boys. So that leaves about 25 boys who are able to play basketball, and that doesn’t even mean they want to.

“If you want to be a winning coach and establish a dominant program, Dollar Bay High School isn’t exactly where you want to be,” Kentala said.

But Kentala, a Dollar Bay grad himself, wanted to win, no matter how challenging. He knew he had to change things, but he didn’t know how. Luckily, someone else did.

“It took a conversation with our now assistant coach, Aaron Janke, he kind of shook me and said, ‘Hey, we need to go down to the elementary. That is where this needs to start.’ And the lightbulb went off in my head,” Kentala said.

So he started hosting practices with the little kids, and among the first group were his current starters. Like everything at Dollar Bay, it was a community affair, so Kentala would grab any parents he could find to help him wrangle 20 elementary school boys.

Almost right away he had a good feeling. The kids loved it, and they completely bought into what Kentala and his slew of volunteers were teaching them. He didn’t use the same terminology, but Kentala taught the same concepts he uses at the varsity level.

LeClaire remembers waking up on Saturday mornings and dreading going to practice because he knew he would have to dribble with his left hand. Iacono hated dribbling drills because he was embarrassed that Janke and Schmitz could dribble behind their backs and between their legs with ease, while he struggled. Still, they went and they practiced because even at that age, the Blue Bolts were competitive, and they wanted to do whatever they could to win.

Now all they needed was a game plan that would work.

Kentala may have been stubborn when he started coaching, and a bit naive, but he was always willing to listen to suggestions and ask for help.

Which is a good thing, because when you coach in a small town, everyone has an opinion, sometimes good, sometimes bad; sometimes welcome, sometimes unwanted.

But when Kentala’s friend, Kevin Antilla, approached the young coach about establishing an identity, he welcomed the idea immediately.

“From a program standpoint, finding your identity was something I also didn’t understand (when I started coaching),” Kentala said. “Every year, just because it is so hard in Dollar Bay because you never know who you are going to get and what the skill level is going to be, so we were always adjusting into who we had. Finally, with these guys, we scrapped that idea.”

Antilla looked at Kentala’s group of youngsters and devised a philosophy for them. It was a perfect fit. So perfect, that it is the identity opposing coaches now have to plan for, just like Kentala always wanted.

– – –

Dollar Bay’s philosophy has stayed the same for years, and so have its players. The core group of starters has grown and gotten stronger, but their personalities and styles of play have remained essentially the same.

There’s LeClaire, the team’s glue-guy point guard. He’s the one who keeps the team on track and makes sure no one misses an assignment. If you see a Blue Bolt take a charge or dive for a loose ball, it’s likely LeClaire.

There’s Iacono, who is always doing the dirty work, getting rebounds and out-toughing opponents. He’s also the one that gets under people’s skin, frustrating them with his aggressive play.

There’s Brandon Thompson, a late, but welcome addition. He started playing with the team in eighth grade, and unlike the others, he has changed quite a bit. Thompson could always shoot, but when he was younger he couldn’t catch the ball. So he put in tons of work, and now you won’t see him drop a pass.

There’s Janke, the most competitive of the bunch. Even in practice, if Janke loses, he might need a few minutes to calm down. There’s nothing he hates more than losing, and nothing he loves more than winning. When they were kids playing in tournaments together, Janke would sneak off after the championship game and take the bracket with “Dollar Bay” written on the winner’s line. He still has them tucked away in a bin at home.

And then there’s Schmitz. The one his teammates said, “Could ball from the beginning.” Now, he’s chasing Dollar Bay’s scoring record and is just 20 points shy of surpassing the mark. Schmitz has long been the team’s catalyst and driving force.

“He’s a killer. When he touches the basketball, he believes he is the best player on the floor. He doesn’t care if LeBron James is out there. He is going to go after him. And I love that,” Kentala said.

Schmitz also remembers every game he’s ever played, from middle school until now. If the Blue Bolts won he can tell you how, and who made the winning basket. But he remembers the losses even more clearly. He remembers what went wrong, and who scored. He remembers who talked trash to him, and what they said. He remembers every detail, and when he plays that team again, Schmitz destroys it.

Schmitz first learned about talking trash when he was a 5-3 freshman weighing in at about 100 pounds. Bigger players would out-muscle him and then let him know about it with their words.

Schmitz remembers how it affected him, so now he will talk a little trash when he needs to get a mental edge. But as the Blue Bolts keep winning, he’s needed it less and less.

“Last year I did it a lot, but this year I’ve toned it down because I haven’t really had to,” he said. “I’ve just been enjoying this year, but I still trash talk when I have to, when we are close, or when the other team is thinking they are going to beat us. I have to knock them back down.”

The whole team possesses a little bit of Janke’s competitive streak and some of Schmitz’s killer instincts.

In practice, sometimes Kentala has to stop scrimmages in order to cool things down.

“That competitive spirit, I love that,” he said. “We’ve had guys, not fighting with fists, but guys get after each other. There is trash talk going on; you have brothers going at it. I’ve had to calm it down sometimes. But at the end of the day, everyone is smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a good practice, or basketball game or city league or whatever without someone getting pissed off. That’s basketball. That’s sports.”

So yes, they get pissed when they lose. They yell and scream at each other in practice. And they’ve been known to talk trash on occasion, but Kentala would never ask them to change. Because they need that edge. You don’t win 20 games without it.

“We are not altar boys, to say the least, but I love them regardless,” he said with a smile.

– – –

It’s a Wednesday afternoon after school. Kids are packing up their lockers, preparing to go home, and most of the Blue Bolts are warming up, getting ready for practice. But upstairs, Jesse Kentala sits behind his desk, and across from him is Devin Schmitz, already dressed in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. The two have had many conversations like this. They talk about school, and life, and of course, basketball. Some of the conversations are easy — when you’re undefeated talking about the game is a breeze. Some of them are hard — like when Schmitz was a freshman and Dollar Bay went 2-19. But the important thing is, the conversations get to happen. If Kentala had followed through with that resignation letter years ago, Schmitz might be talking to a different coach across the desk, or maybe the senior wouldn’t be there at all. But there they are, at 19-0, getting ready to play Jeffers (who they would beat 70-59 for a perfect regular season).

The story of Dollar Bay isn’t over. The Blue Bolts have districts, and then if they get their way, regionals and states on the path ahead. But what they’ve written so far is pretty remarkable. It’s the story of a small school, a group of kids that have played together since elementary school, and an undefeated season.

And Kentala is at the helm. But the story wouldn’t be happening, not like this, if he followed through with that other thing he wrote, years ago.

The Blue Bolts like this story better.