Carney-Nadeau’s Jake Polfus is right at home

12/13/2018 | Feature | By Bryce Derouin

I t’s nearly a month before Carney-Nadeau’s season opener against Rapid River and Jake Polfus is ready to reflect as he prepares for his 11th season as C-N’s head coach. He comfortably leans back in his chair inside an office, just steps away from the entrance to the hallowed gym as balls bounce and shots are thrown up by those still lingering inside. It’s a common occurrence for this small but basketball-crazed town where white t-shirts with a big “3” plastered on the front are worn with a sense of pride and a key to the gym is readily available for those looking to shoot around.

“The key is on my counter at my dad’s house,” said Jake, whose dad Paul lives a walk away from the school. “They just walk right in, don’t even have to knock. Kids are here at 6 in the morning until late at night sometimes.” 

That’s just a glimpse into the basketball culture at Carney-Nadeau, and it’s what Jake has experienced throughout his life. First, as a kid while his dad led the varsity boys and girls programs, then as a player before eventually returning to take over for his dad as a coach. In those 10 years, there’s been success and there’s been drama, occasionally at the same time. There’s been the bottle incident, the Class C thing, and of course, his emotional sideline outbursts, which are theater in themselves and eagerly brought up by his detractors from other towns. 

When you look at his success, his name and his fiery personality, it all goes into making Jake Polfus one of the most polarizing coaches in the UP. 

The name Polfus is synonymous with Carney-Nadeau. It’s why it’s not a surprise to learn that Jake taking over for Paul was always the plan after he finished at Finlandia. But what many don’t realize is that C-N wasn’t Jake’s first varsity head coaching job. After a one-month stint of pro ball in Albania where his electricity worked 50 percent of the time, he made his coaching debut in 2006 at West Iron County while he served as a substitute teacher at the school. 

The arrangement was essentially doomed from the start. It was a new area where he didn’t know anybody, and he couldn’t meet with the team or talk to his players until November. If he wasn’t at the school, he would remain secluded in his apartment and play video games such as Madden or NBA 2K because there was nothing else for him to do. But through the hardships, home was never far from his mind. At his own games he would be more concerned with how C-N did that night than his own team, and it would often lead to him rushing home on Friday nights so he could get the full report. Jake would never stay a weekend in Iron River, and since there was no Sunday practice, he could always go back to his apartment on Monday. 

Things never materialized on the court, either, and he went 3-18 in his only season at WIC. Not many people are familiar with his WIC tenure; it was such a bad experience, he doesn’t discuss it often and prefers to just flush it from his memory.

“I don’t even count that,” he said. “I just look back as it was what it was.

“I told my dad that after I got done with that year, I’m more worried about what Carney is doing, and I want to be back there,” Jake said.

It’s not uncommon for C-N’s players to have their phone light with a text notification from their head coach the night before a game. It could be an opposing players’ tendency to go one way or another, or an offensive set that stood out — whatever he sees during a late-night film study, Jake is immediately reaching out to his players for discussion. 

The open communication around the clock extends to more than just scouting reports. If he sees someone pull off a move on TV, he’s checking to see if his guys saw it. After practices, he’ll ask the players for their opinions on what they thought they did well, or what they want to work on. 

“I love talking to my players,” Jake said. “I probably text them more than I text anybody else. I’ve had a good relationship with a lot of my players, and it’s good just to text them and say, ‘Hey, what did you see in practice today?’ I think you have to have that communication with your players. They have to be able to say, ‘Hey coach, this isn’t working.’ ”

This is why Jake is the perfect bridge between today’s players and the hard-nosed old-school style he came up from under his dad and the college coaches he played for. It just took some time for those lessons to take hold. 

His first stop after high school was Gogebic, but since he was never able to mesh with the guys on the roster, he went home. College basketball was a foreign concept for Jake. It’s not like today where some of the UP’s top talent can get together and play at Bay, and there wasn’t anyone he could lean on for guidance that had gone through a college program in the UP.

“I was pretty sheltered because nobody before me had played college basketball,” Jake said. “I didn’t know many people. It wasn’t a big thing in the UP. When I went up there and didn’t fit well, I just came home. 

“Sometimes I wish I would have stuck it out because I talk to players to stick things out, but it worked out for the best.”

His time at UW-Marinette got off to a rough start as well. At C-N, he was accustomed to a run-n-gun 3-point shooting style before being indoctrinated to Daren Sommerfeldt’s defensive-oriented program. In his first two games for UW-Marinette, Jake shot a pull-up 3 in transition. Sommerfeldt pulled him and sat him the rest of the game. In those two games, he estimated he played five minutes. Again, he decided to head home. 

“I told my dad that I can’t do this,” Jake said. “That’s when I learned that I have to communicate with my coach.”

He sat down and met with Sommerfeldt who decided to move him from the point to a shooting guard. And that was the first time in his college career where Jake saw the effect of a coach who is open and willing to listen to a player’s concerns. It was the same thing for his 3 ½ years at Finlandia, where Art Van Damme brought together some of the UP’s finest talent and won the 2001 United State Collegiate Athletic Association Division I championship. 

“They allowed me to be myself,” Jake said of Van Damme and Summerfeldt. “They said, ‘Communicate with me and what you want to do on the court,’ and they gave me so much freedom and that was nice. I think as a coach, I learned that you have to give players some freedom and they have to be able to express themselves. 

“If they’re scared to talk to you or scared to say anything to you, things aren’t going to go very good. I like to have an open communication with my players.”

When Jake does have to get on a player, it’s that trust he’s built with them that gives what he’s saying credence. He’s not just doing it for a power trip, he’s doing it because he genuinely cares about what’s best for the player and the team, and his guys understand. 

“If I’m hard on someone and I feel like I was too hard, I will text them that night and say it was my bad,” Jake said. “Sometimes I’ll get excited because I have a passion for this game, and sometimes I expect things a certain way. I think if you a show a kid that ‘hey, it’s all right,’ and not hold a grudge, I think they respect that.

“My dad taught me that you say what you say and be done with it, but make sure you go talk to them and make sure it’s all right afterward. Because if you don’t, a kid is going home saying, ‘All he did was yell at me.’ You want them to know there’s a reason for it.”

When it comes to officials, there’s less yelling from Jake these days. In his early years while coaching at C-N, if a call went against him, his voice would carry over all other noise across the gym as his face went red with rage. There could also be stomping, going out on the court to get his point across and exuberant motioning with his arms. Then you throw in the C-N crowd booing and complaining about the call themselves while the opposing fans mockingly cheer or throw up the sign for a technical foul as this goes on. It all made for quite an entertaining scene. And that was just in the moment. Jake could ride officials for minutes on end and let them have it. 

“I was bad to officials, man,” he said. “I’d realize I was hard on officials, and I’d go home at night and just say, ‘What the heck are you doing? What’s going to change if you do that?’ ”

Jake believes he received three to four technicals a year early on. Mike Lyons, one of the refs Jake gave it to most, now teaches at C-N. Jake estimates that he’s apologized over 100 times to him for his behavior. 

“I feel once you get on the refs, your kids lose focus, too,” Jake said. “I’ve done that before where I’ll get so upset at a ref that I’ll forget about coaching for 4-5 minutes and the kids are scrambling around. You gotta stay calm so the kids stay calm.”

This is not to say that Jake will be confused as a saint during games. His emotions will still come out when he feels something went against his team — just not to the same degree. He’s more willing to ask and discuss a call than insult or show up an official. Still, for someone as passionate as himself who loves his community and team, it’s unrealistic to expect him to sit idly by when something goes against them.

“I’m still going to be hard sometimes because I’m going to get excited,” Jake said. “If I wasn’t excited all the time, I wouldn’t be competitive. I want to be competitive, but there’s a time to be competitive and a time to relax.”

I love talking to my players. I probably text them more than anybody else.

Jake Polfus

Success, of course, is the biggest contributor for an individual to be labeled as polarizing. No one cares about losers. There’s also going against the norm or being involved in a dramatic event that will be talked about for years to come that can add to someone’s legend. 

For Jake Polfus, that’s the bottle incident and moving C-N up to Class C for two seasons. 

People from North Central have said that a pop bottle was the difference between C-N or the Jets making a state semifinal run in 2012. North Central held a 54-52 lead in the final moments of a district opener in C-N before all hell broke loose. C-N’s Lucas Moreau missed a floater in the lane before C-N’s Trevor Poupore would knock North Central’s Trevor Ekberg to the ground. Jake looked to his dad and said it was over. 

Then, a pop bottle was thrown on the floor. A technical was assessed to North Central for the debris on the court. But first, Cody Whitens — instead of Ekberg — shot two free throws for the foul on Poupore, making them both. C-N’s Wade Schetter converted two free throws of his own for the technical, and because of the tech, C-N was able to get one more possession. Moreau inbounded the ball to Schetter, who banked-in a 3 to cap a dramatic 57-56 C-N win. 

“I didn’t even see the bottle go on the floor, but on the film, you can see the bottle go on the floor,” Jake said. “Now whether that should be a technical, I would say probably 90 percent it should not be a technical. I didn’t agree with the call, but am I going to say no? If you’re going to give me an opportunity to win, I’m sorry, but I’m going to take it. I caught some heat for saying that, like you should have said, ‘No, I don’t want that.’ You tell me what coach is going to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want the technical.’ ”

The emotional win was the first in a memorable tournament run. The Wolves survived a 58-56 overtime thriller to defeat Bark River-Harris in the district finals and then in the quarterfinals, made 14 3s to beat Pellston and Chris Hass, who would play at Bucknell. 

The historic run ended with a 52-44 loss to a bigger and more athletic Climax-Scotts team. It all happened so fast that Jake can barely recall the details of the two week-span where C-N was receiving state-wide attention. Locally, the players were treated like rock stars and could get free meals at the local stores, and C-N’s run also coincided with Facebook becoming more popular across the UP. For one of the first times, the players and coaches at a school in the UP could receive direct words of encouragement from people all over, and it was C-N who had everyone’s support. 

“The social media world was crazy,” Jake said. “That’s when Facebook was big and you could update a status and check how many comments it had and it was exciting. I’m telling you, I got messages from people I hadn’t talked to in 10 years. People from all over the place. Me and Luke [Moreau] talk about it all the time. It was a whirlwind.”

C-N’s enrollment has never eclipsed 100 in the last 10 years. The school’s ability to turn out basketball talent year after year is a source of pride, and its small gym is one of the biggest homecourt advantages in the UP. In Jake’s first 10 years as head coach, C-N is 80-19 at home. This is why it was controversial when the MHSAA took away C-N’s homecourt advantage for the 2014 district final and moved the matchup with North Central to Bark River-Harris. 

North Central would win 65-57 in a game where the bleachers and balcony at BR-H were filled, leaving standing room only. At the end of the night, an unofficial attendance of around 1,100 was floated around. The game saw a fan get ejected and escorted out by a cop, and a technical assessed to Jake. It would be the last time for the next three years that C-N had a legitimate shot at beating its rival. 

The decision to move the game came soon after C-N had been edged by North Central, 71-70, in Carney thanks to two free throws from Jason Whitens. So, you can see why C-N felt slighted by the MHSAA after having understood it would get another chance at North Central on its home court.

“I looked at it like, all right, we almost beat them, and we had the benefit of getting the good draw and all of a sudden you’re going to move it on us?” Jake said. “I just felt like there wasn’t a good explanation for it. I get that we were small and not everyone was going to get in here, but I feel like we should have been rewarded for getting a good draw.

“I talked to the MHSAA and they said the gym was too small, and they also brought up the bottle incident. I was like, there was nothing we could do to control that whole incident. 

“If they would have said at the beginning of the year that you guys are small, it’s going to be a huge game, then let’s move it to a neutral site. But two weeks before when the draw has been out for a month, you’re going to tell me we lose home court? So it was a little frustrating.”

That’s how a school as small as C-N found itself in Class C the next two seasons. C-N applied and was accepted. In the first year, the Wolves were competitive before losing in the opener, 64-53 to Iron Mountain. The next year they made progress, beating West Iron County, 50-45, but coming up short in the district final to Norway, 48-40. 

Meanwhile, North Central captured the district title each season, winning by an average of 37.6 points per game in the district rounds on its way to winning two state championships. 

“In some respects, I wish we would’ve stayed Class D and see what would’ve happened,” Jake said. “Class C was all right and stuff, but I was just really frustrated at how it went down. 

“It was also kind of like, North Central, can we beat them? I guess you never really want to tell yourself you can’t beat somebody, but I guess we looked at our opportunities and said, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a better chance for us to win a district.’ ”

When looking at the MHSAA record books for made 3s in a season, C-N’s name comes up six times in the top 20, including 225 in 1999 and 224 in 2000 — the sixth and seventh best marks in history. The 3-point culture was originated by Paul Polfus when he took over the boys program in the 90s. He had just one kid who was at least 6-foot, so he decided to come up with an identity that could work with the size of the school and its players. With an enrollment of C-N’s, you’re probably not getting 6-5 guys year in and year out. 

“We started to work more of the full-court game with different presses and it started to work,” Paul said. “One group of kids started to build off another and it sort of evolved that way. We were also really good at going to the basket and breaking people down. We had more than one dimension (of shooting 3s), but we liked to create the illusion that it’s all we did, but it wasn’t.”

The quick-trigger 3s and skilled athletes have been prevalent during Jake’s tenure. In 10 years, he’s had 11 players receive an All-UP selection, and has given his players the same green light that has become one of the program’s signature traits. 

In 2015 after losing four of six games, Jake went into practice and told his guys they were going to shoot every time they caught the ball. If they got an offensive rebound, they were kicking it back out and shooting it again. C-N would go on to win seven of its next eight games. It started with Manny Duran scoring 39 points on nine 3s in a win over Mid Pen and also included a victory over BR-H where the Wolves were 14 of 47 from 3. 

“We were making 3s and were smiling and having fun,” Jake said. “You gotta have confidence in yourself and give them confidence. If I tell them, ‘Hey, that’s a bad shot, that’s a bad shot, but you can shoot this one,’ then they get tentative. We always just want our shooters just to shoot. If you believe in yourself, you’ll shoot so much better.”

The one market of UP basketball still untapped is in individual training. Sure, the internet is a great tool for drills and workouts, but the option to have personalized live instruction is still limited in the area. 

Jake Polfus is out to change that. 

The individual training started with Schetter and Moreau. Jake would train his kids in the summer or after school and work on drills and improving their skill sets. The exercises were more traditional, such as going between your legs — or making any other dribble move — and finishing with a layup. 

Now, he spends time researching the practices of various YouTube and Instagram trainers. Micah Lancaster out of Grand Rapids is one inspiration; he implements hand-eye coordination elements into his drills and Jake has done the same with players all across the UP. 

He trained North Central alums Jason Whitens and Dawson Bilski as they prepared for their collegiate seasons at Western Michigan and Michigan Tech. There were other alums, too, such as Gladstone’s Brad Spindler, Menominee’s Marcus McKenney and Ishpeming’s Dondre Yohe — all players looking for someone to train with before the fall. Besides his own current players, Jake worked out other high school athletes such as North Central’s Griffin Johnson. And he did it all for free. 

“It gave me a new love for basketball because I saw kids who love the game and just needed a little bit of structure,” Jake said. “I told Dawson at the end of working out that he gave me a new love. It was like I found training to be so much fun and stuff. I went home and was excited about it, man, because I get to work out again tomorrow and try these new things.”

When Jake works with somebody, he texts them and asks what three things they want to work on. The 45-50 minute workout revolves around skill development and can include props such as a foam roller to simulate contact or be used as a tool for grabbing and improving coordination. He emphasizes the importance of pacing and change of direction and not going 110 percent all the time — a common mistake by those who first start a session with him.

The goal is to up his clientele to 20-30 by next summer; he plans to eventually charge for his services, but right now, that’s not his focus. 

“You look at UP kids and you wonder why they’re not getting recruited, maybe I can help them just a little bit,” Jake said. “If I can give a kid a chance and help him get somewhere where he wants to be, then that’s what I want.”

Jake Polfus understands how good he has it made. His dad is the athletic director and JV coach, so there’s no internal administration pressure. The town respects his accomplishments and understands he has the best interest of his players ahead of his own. That’s why in 10 years he’s had just one off the court issue from a parent, and if you heard what it was, it’s pretty benign compared to the other crazy stories you hear at other towns. 

“I could have practice for four hours and parents would support it,” Jake said. “If you push your kids, they understand there’s a reason they’re being pushed. I’ve never really had any backlash, and I’m pretty harsh sometimes. I’m loud and get after my kids, and they respect it … That doesn’t happen everywhere. That’s pretty cool.”

It’s an ideal situation at a place he loves. But it doesn’t mean his heart is set on staying. 

This past offseason he applied for the open Bay women’s head coaching position. He was one of three finalists but did not get the job; that went to Rob Robinson and his 24 years of college coaching experience. 

While thankful for going through the interview process, it highlighted his one deficiency as a coach: no background in coaching at the college level. That’s partly why Jake started training college athletes. Maybe if a head coach notices significant improvement from one of his players that worked with Jake, it will get his name out there for potential assistant openings in the future. 

“It showed me that maybe I gotta make myself more visible,” Jake said of not getting the job. “That’s where the player development took off, to show that I can work with players at the college level because that’s what it’s going to take.

“If the opportunity presented itself, I wouldn’t mind going to some junior college or as an assistant somewhere. I really would like to be an assistant and develop players. I like the development and the strategizing.”

It’s weird to consider C-N without Jake and imagine him donning anything besides green and gold. But at some point, it’s likely to happen. A college will take a chance on the accomplished high school coach/trainer who has thrived in the little town of Carney, and give him the opportunity to share his passion and knowledge on a bigger platform. 

And in that moment when Jake says goodbye to Carney-Nadeau, it might be difficult to tell who will miss the other more. 

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.