Foster Wonders: The UP’s most intriguing recruit

1/8/2019 | Feature | By Bryce Derouin
Iron Mountain

T here are numerous anecdotes that go into Foster Wonders being the most interesting UP recruit in recent history. There’s the one about him scrimmaging against the Michigan Tech men as an eighth-grader, pitting him against college athletes before he played his first high school game — and holding his own, at that. There’s the full scholarship offer he received from Northern Michigan as an eighth-grader. And there’s the rare Division I offers he has that UP kids rarely see; as a sophomore, he already has two: UW-Milwaukee and Central Michigan. 

But the most unique story concerning Foster Wonders that highlights his advanced skill set and mature game has nothing to do with offers or college coaches. It came after Iron Mountain’s 66-49 quarterfinal loss to Maple City Glen Lake last season. In a sign of good sportsmanship, the coaching staff of the eventual state runner-ups approached Wonders to hear about his college plans for the upcoming fall, only to be left blown away that the 6-foot-5 forward who scored 20 points on them was just a freshman. 

It only takes a quick scroll through the NMU basketball records to see Matt Wonders and Julie Heldt’s names across numerous categories. Matt is the men’s eighth all-time leading scorer with 1,538 points, while Julie is 18th (1,208) and the women’s school leader in points in a season (715) and in a game (52). She jokes with Foster that he will never top her 52-point outing, and Foster believes his mom was talented enough to play at the Division I level. 

His parents’ background almost made it a given that Foster and his older brother Carson would be destined for successful basketball careers. And sure, it turned out that way, with Carson earning All-UP Dream Team honors and currently a member of NMU’s basketball team, but Matt and Julie never pushed their kids toward the sport they excelled at.

“With both of them, we got them into as many things as possible,” Matt said. “Both boys played baseball, soccer and football. We kind of just told them to pick and whatever you choose and have a passion for.”

Even as a kid, Foster excelled as a natural athlete. At the ages of 9, 11 and 13, he won the NFL Play 60 Punt, Pass and Kick competition. But his first passion in organized sports was baseball. It wasn’t uncommon for him to spend two hours a day at the baseball field and inside the batting cages. It’s why he still wears No. 00; he chose it when he was a 9-year old baseball player and it has stuck ever since. It’s not a typical number schools usually stock, but Iron Mountain ordered it so he still features the same number he wore when he played the sport he first fell in love with.

By sixth grade, Foster started to undergo a fundamental shift in his athletic priorities. Carson had committed himself to basketball at that point, and the more Foster played, the more he started to find himself leaning to it himself. 

“When my brother decided he wanted to play basketball, it was basically my whole family,” Foster said. “It wasn’t that they pressured me into it, it just felt natural.”

Going to the gym was nothing new for Foster and his family. With Matt serving as a teacher at Iron Mountain, access was never an issue for them. The family would toss around a football, kick a soccer ball or even play badminton. Foster and Carson had a basketball in their hands as far back as when they could walk. But once those two committed themselves to basketball and let their parents know they wanted to be good, the trips to the gym took on a different meaning. Matt and Julie would put them through drills and lead them in the right direction to be successful. Eventually, Foster took it upon himself to drag his parents to the gym daily. In seventh grade, he started weight training two to three times a week, and sometimes when Matt would be ready to leave, Foster wasn’t ready to go and would say he wasn’t done working out. 

“He’s always been self-motivated,” Matt said. “It seems like whatever he loves and has the passion for, he doesn’t mind putting the extra time in. He’s always just found certain things he devotes himself to and throws himself full-hearted into it.”

Even now, Foster spends 45 minutes to an hour after each practice working on his shot with Matt or going through ballhandling drills. Besides the assistance he received from his parents, Carson has played as pivotal of a role as any in his brother’s development. Foster had a training partner who was stronger and had all the athletic advantages of someone four years older who could challenge him on a regular basis. He could also witness Carson’s career develop right before him while preparing for his own basketball future. 

“Every day when we’d go to the gym, he’d push me to do things that really were uncomfortable for me at the time but made me a lot better,” Foster said. “It just made me have to change the way I played a lot faster because he’d block my shot. He wouldn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. He’d just keep blocking my shot or stealing the ball from me, and I’d finally figure out ways to get around him and score.”

Of course, there were always the one-on-one battles, which Foster describes as having the potential to get bloody from time to time. They might come to blows, and they might not talk to each other the rest of the day. Foster can still remember the first time he beat him. He was in eighth grade and doesn’t think he missed a shot. 

It took all but a few minutes for me to understand the depth of Foster’s offensive talents. In the season opener against Gladstone, he drove left, spun over his right shoulder and released a left hook on the move over the outstretched arms of his defender; the ball bounced gently off the glass and through the basket. There’s maybe one or two other players in the UP who have the body control, footwork and touch to pull of that shot, and it’s watching those kinds of plays that make you realize how well-rounded Foster is on the offensive end. 

At 6-foot-5 with exquisite ballhandling skills, there may not be a defender in the UP who can match up with him. He can take smaller defenders into the post where he can launch fadeaways, or power his way for step throughs with his fundamental footwork. He can knock down 3s, or take his guy off the dribble and finish at the hoop with either hand. Through eight games this season, he’s averaging 23.3 points per contest — the second highest average in the UP so far. 

It’s a stark contrast compared to the start of Foster’s freshman season. Remember that scrimmage against Tech? It came during a summer team camp before Foster’s first year of high school. He was shocked and speechless when he got asked to take part. Even his parents were in disbelief. By his own admissions, he played well and exceeded his own expectations. That in itself — a young teenager competing against grown men — is impressive, but the story becomes more awe-inspiring when you find out Foster suffered a stress fracture during the scrimmage but still continued to play well through the duration of it. He would play two more months on it, thanks to ibuprofen and tiger balm, as he took part in AAU showcases. But Foster’s persistence to play through the injury delayed his recovery. It would force him to miss the first seven games of the season before he would average 19 points as a freshman the rest of the way. 

“I keep telling him that if he’s going to be an athlete, he’s going to get hurt and those type of things will happen,” Matt said. “But they definitely make you appreciate the times that you are able to practice and have games. 

“It was a long three, four weeks during the season watching his friends play, but I think once he got in there, he took full advantage of the situation.”

It seems like whatever he loves and has the passion for, he doesn’t mind putting the extra time in. He’s always just found certain things he devotes himself to and throws himself full-hearted into it.

Matt Wonders

Iron Mountain coach Bucky Johnson can remember back when his son, Marcus Johnson, and Foster were managers for his varsity basketball team. The two would get up their own shots during pregame and halftime, but oftentimes, Bucky would have to tell them to get off the floor so they wouldn’t steal shots from the actual players. 

“If you look back at the pictures in the coaches room, you’ll see pictures of them as little squirts as sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, and they were right there,” Bucky said. “There’s a spot in one of the games where Foster and Marcus are both sitting on the bench, and something great happened, and they’re both there jumping up and down.

“People used to say, ‘I can’t wait to watch those two play,’ and now, they’re turning into the players that they’re turning into.”

Together, they make the most dynamic scoring duo in the UP. With Johnson at 22.8 points per game, teams have struggled to contain one or the other. In the simplest of terms, at times, Iron Mountain can resemble a your turn, my turn offense when Johnson or Foster attempt to break down an opposing defense. But the chemistry between the two about knowing when to attack or look for the other when they’re in a rhythm has been cultivated since the two played together as far back as the first grade. 

“It just comes naturally to us by now,” Foster said. “We can both sense when the other is getting hot and getting it to that guy and letting them go to work.”

Foster can remember Bill Sall asking him and his family to come into his office after a summer league game. He was expecting the NMU coach to talk about Carson, who had just gotten to NMU. Instead, Sall offered him a full scholarship. Foster’s jaw dropped, and Matt estimates the smile didn’t come off his face for at least a month. And so began the recruitment of Foster Wonders, which will be the most discussed in the UP until he commits.

In addition to his three offers, he has fielded interest from Miami of Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and UW-Green Bay. If there’s one school that piques his interest, it’s Wisconsin. He believes the program’s style of play would fit his game, and he admits the possibility of going Division I is tempting. 

“A lot of people say don’t get hung up on it,” he said of going Division I. “I’m just going to look for whatever feels right.”

That would be a program with a family atmosphere that is relatively close to home where he can still be in touch with his own family. 

But as Iron Mountain prepares for what it hopes is a deep run in March, one of the most important stretches for Foster’s individual career will take place during the high school offseason. Foster will play for the AAU organization Phenom University, which competes in the NIKE Elite Youth Basketball League. The EYBL is considered the top AAU circuit by various online media outlets, and to get a scope of the league’s typical talent, 26 percent of the players in the NBA went through the EYBL. 

Foster’s unique situation also has him contemplating another option that’s unheard of in the UP: transferring to a prep school. He’s thought about it, but wouldn’t seriously consider doing it until after his junior year. At that point, it would be fair to wonder what more Foster could gain from playing his senior season in the UP, especially when you consider he has yet to grow and develop his full range of athleticism. It’s just another intriguing possibility. But for all the uncertainty with his future, there is one thing Foster wants to take with him wherever he may end up. 

“No matter where I go, I’ll always represent the UP,” he said. 

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.