A quiet talent: Matt Ojala looks to cement legacy at Calumet

11/26/2018 | Feature | By Bryce Derouin

L abeling anyone the best at anything is tricky business. You assuredly will be met with some sort of counter-argument when using terms such as “greatest” or any other phrase marking someone as the finest at their craft.

But, there are exceptions. Those are the individuals who warrant the discussion based on their impressive resumes that can stand up against others’ place in history. In sports, that means record-setting stats and postseason championships.

And that’s why it’s worth asking: Is Matt Ojala the best boys basketball player in Calumet history?

To understand Ojala’s motivations, one simply has to look at his parents. Matt’s mom, Shana, was an all-state player for Ewen-Trout Creek and finished her prep career with 1,732 points. She went on to star at Northern Michigan where she earned All-American honors and scored 1,057 points after playing two years at Michigan Tech. Mike, Matt’s dad and coach, is the fifth all-time leading scorer at E-TC with 1,647 points. With their parents’ accomplishments, it was only natural people would pay attention to Matt and his twin brother Travis’athletic careers at Calumet with a keen interest. They both understood that.

“It does put pressure on me,” Matt said, “and I try not to worry about it too much, but there are times where I almost use it as motivation to get better.”

If you visited the Michigan Tech SDC before Matt’s freshman and sophomore years, you likely saw him in the gym. A typical trip for Matt would begin at 11 a.m. after eating a large meal to hold him over; he would need it, because his workouts would span seven hours. He could be off to the side in a corner tossing a tennis ball off a wall and catching it while dribbling between his legs, taking part in pick-up games with whoever was present or getting up shot after shot. Matt went through this routine five times a week during the summer, and even during the school year, he managed to find time on Saturdays and Sundays to fit in his marathon training sessions.

“I think with myself and Shana, I think we had some initial pressure put on both of those kids,” Mike said. “But they set goals for themselves and knew they wanted to be players, so it was more or less just us telling them the things they needed to do to achieve those goals, and Matt has a lot of self-motivation.”

As the years have gone on, the most apparent change Matt has undergone since his freshman year has been with his body. When he made his varsity debut against Hancock, he was 5-5 and weighed 120 pounds. He was too small to score against teams’ defensive interior, so he launched 3-point bombs from as far as 25 feet. Now, those 25-footers are no longer necessary. Matt’s grown to be 6-1, 165 pounds and features the athleticism to put down two-handed dunks. It’s a far cry from the opener against Hancock when Matt struggled to sleep the night before the game due to his nerves, and Mike wondered how his undersized son would handle the spotlight.

“Back then it was nerve-wracking on every shot it seemed like,” Mike said. “It was tough for him to get shots off, and he’d have to stretch defenses to 25, 28 feet out. Early on, it was like, ‘Please hit that first shot,’ so he could get the jitters out and get some confidence.”

His shorts and No. 4 jersey were a baggy fit for him, but Matt looked every bit like he belonged that night. He scored 17 points and led Calumet to a victory.

When it comes to considering Matt’s case as the best player in school history, there are several factors to consider. First, the numbers:

  • He currently sits at 972 points and will become the school’s all-time leading scorer with 127 more points to eclipse Josh Cone’s career scoring record of 1,098.
  • Matt’s 479 points last season set a single-season school record.
  • During that same season, he set the school’s single-season assist record (169) while leading the UP in assists per game (7.4).
  • If assists were tracked throughout school history, he is likely the all-time leader in that category.
  • He also set the free throws made (107-157) and free throws attempted mark in a single season.

In addition to the individual records, Matt’s teams have consistently won. He’s led Calumet to three straight district titles for the first time in school history and helped deliver the school’s first-ever regional semifinal victory with 25 points, eight assists and five steals in a blowout against Indian River Inland Lakes. 

Getting the reserved Ojala to say much of anything in a one-on-one setting is an arduous task. Much of our 15-minute interview is filled with answers that include “I don’t knows” or some short mumbled reply as he paces back and forth while tossing a basketball around his waist. So to get him to discuss what he thinks of his accomplishments and where he ranks is aimless.

“Don’t let that shyness fool you,” said varsity assistant Mike Steber, who also served as Calumet’s head coach in the 90s. “When he gets on the court, he has a competitive spirit and he will stick a dagger in you for sure.”

Steber has a good perspective on Matt’s place amongst the top scorers in school history. His tenure included coaching the other two 1,000-point scorers in Calumet history: Tom Mattson and Cone. Mattson made his mark as a pure shooter who was deadly coming off screens, while Cone and Matt boast similar playing styles with the combination of being able to slash to the basket and knock down jumpers.

“For him to virtually break the all-time scoring record in three years tells you he’s one of the best to come out of Calumet,” Steber said of Matt.

But what separates Matt from those two is his playmaking ability. Steber and coach Ojala both cite Matt’s vision as some of the best they’ve witnessed at the high school level. One-handed passes immediately off the dribble, no-look drop-offs and outlets in transition allow Matt to routinely set up his teammates for open looks. It’s impossible to track, but try to consider the last time someone from the Copper Country led the UP in assists.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone pass the ball like him,” Steber said. “He has the ability to see the floor in a way that no one else can see. He’s scoring 20-plus a game, but I don’t think people realize how often he makes excellent passes and the excellent teammate he is by getting people open while driving and seeing the court.”

There are those who say all the right things when it comes to putting the team first, but may secretly have the eagerness for individual stats and glory, while others can be blunter about how much awards mean to them.

And then there’s Matt. 

When he takes the court Tuesday in Calumet to face Negaunee, many of those in attendance will be counting his points to see if he can reach the 1,000-point mark. Matt couldn’t care less.

“Everyone keeps asking me if I’m going to score 1,000 points and if I’m going to go for 28,” he said. “It’s just kind of annoying. I don’t care.”

It’s one of the few moments during the interview when Matt lets his guard down and speaks openly. He does it again when asked about Iron Mountain.

In Calumet’s 56-44 loss to the Mountaineers, Matt was held to 4 points and 7 assists as Calumet attempted to win the first regional title in program history. Matt’s run the game back through his mind every day since March 14, considering what he could have done differently in every spot. 

“It makes me mad, but I used it as motivation throughout the summer,” he said. “I would have kept shooting from the outside and trusting my shot. After I missed my first couple shots, I was too passive with my shot and not confident in myself.”

The day after the loss, he was in the gym and going through another shooting session. He then spent the summer working on his form with Steber to adjust his guide hand so his jumper could have more consistent results. And this past fall, he still managed to get his shots up despite having football practice in the afternoons; he woke up at 5:20 a.m. four days a week so he could be in the gym by 6 a.m. to get a workout in before school started.

As for coach Ojala, he continued his annual tradition of giving Matt various on-court tips for what he has to improve on from year to year. One of Mike’s messages for the upcoming season was more simple: have fun. That might be easier for Matt, who admits he now enjoys basketball more compared to his first two years on varsity. Back then, his body hadn’t fully developed, and he heard the criticisms from opponents that all he could do was shoot. That conversation was put to rest.

And now, Matt finds himself in a new one.

Bryce Derouin

Bryce is a co-founder of Upbeat. He earned his journalism degree from Grand Valley State and served as the sports editor for three years at the Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton after working one year as a sports reporter at the Daily Press in Escanaba.