Jake Witt: The UP’s biggest star is ready for his next stage

11/6/2018 | Feature | By Eden Laase
Bruce Crossing

T andlund Lake Road looks like it could go on forever. It’s covered in gravel and marked with gentle bumps and divots, lined with storybook-style trees — tall and full and perfectly green. But before one can explore the potential infinity of the road, there’s a little turnoff. After a few soft corners, the road opens up to reveal Tandlund Lake itself. Today, a Sunday morning in late July, the lake looks picturesque. Not too small to be boring, but not too big to be overwhelming, and blessed with a clear blue sky. It seems the perfect place to fish.

And Jake Witt agrees.

Jake Witt fishing

Over the years, this place has become like a second, or rather third home to Witt — the Ewen Trout-Creek gym is likely in the No. 2 spot. He even skipped a school dance once in favor of fishing at Tandlund Lake with his dog Bailey. Today, Witt isn’t skirting any other responsibilities to fish. In fact, this is one of the few days all summer he has had any free time. Between family trips, all-star games and prepping for his freshman year and basketball season at Michigan Tech, Witt has been busy, to say the least. It’s about 11 a.m., and Witt is leaning against his SUV, clad in a monochromatic getup — Khaki cargo shorts, an army green cutoff with “Reebok” splashed across the front and a gray baseball cap.

Witt opens the back of his car and pulls out a fishing pole and tackle box.

“The best fishing spot,” he says, “is on the other side of the lake.”

Witt has one particular place in mind. A moss-covered fallen log that juts out into the water, perfect for casting. Getting to it isn’t easy, but to Witt, anything worth doing is worth doing right — so he begins a 30-minute trek to the opposite side of the water. Stepping over logs and under branches, Witt moves his 6-7 frame through the debris with ease. It’s certainly not the most athletic feat Witt has accomplished — after all, he has thrown down thundering dunks, caught footballs one-handed and set discus records — but still, the task takes some skill. Once he arrives at the special log, Witt attaches a lure and begins casting, flinging his line into the water in hopes of reeling in a bass. Witt loves this lake. If he could, he would spend most mornings fishing here, But with a schedule like his, that just isn’t possible anymore. When his calendar was less full, Witt spent time at Tandlund Lake with friends, his dad, or sometimes, if he needed some peace and time to think — alone.

On this warm summer morning, Witt has plenty to think about. He finds himself in a kind of limbo many people remember well. Caught for one summer between high school and college, between youth and some of life’s most formative years. Of course, we don’t all share Witt’s particular situation when we count down the days to college while still trying to cling to the last moments of high school. Because when it comes to Jake Witt, almost everything is different than the norm.

It takes only minutes for Witt to drive to his favorite lake. His house in Bruce Crossing was built by a family friend when he was 5-years old, and the Witt family — made up of Jake, his sister Gracie and their parents — has lived there ever since.

“If you like the outdoors then you’ll like it here,” Witt says of his small-town paradise. “There isn’t much to do as far as city stuff; I mean, you can’t go to a mall or a movie theater. The closest Walmart is an hour away. But I liked growing up here. You didn’t have to worry about traffic or anything like that.”

As Witt casts, his lure flying halfway across the lake, it’s hard to imagine him fitting in anywhere as he fits here. He’s a small-town boy at heart. Well-mannered and good-natured, chatting with everyone who approaches him at the local grocery store, and low-key, spending his free time at places like this, or at home with his family. But Jake Witt shouldn’t be here.

Jake Witt fishing

He’s a 6-7 freak athlete who’s been built like a grown man since he was 16. He will go into the record books as E-TC’s most dominant athlete and best basketball player. Witt averaged 27.1 points, 17.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks a game during his senior season, finishing his high school career with 1,782 points and 1,310 rebounds. Plus, he’s got strength and speed, and all the intangibles that coaches salivate over. Witt should have played basketball at a prep school somewhere and dominated the AAU circuit in the offseason. He probably shouldn’t even be going to Michigan Tech, rather a DI school, for basketball or football (he was offered a walk-on position to play football at Michigan). Instead, he’s tucked away in Bruce Crossing, as a D1 talent that too many programs missed out on.

But Witt is here, much to the delight of his community and the coaches at Michigan Tech. How he got here is all thanks to a meet-cute between his parents which can be chalked up to a little bit of fate and a little bit of luck, with an assist from a police dog. Bill Witt, a state trooper at the time, took a transfer to the Upper Peninsula from downstate and planned to stay in the area for five years, maximum. But we’ve all heard that one before, and life has a way of changing things up.

One day in the middle of summer, he drove through the tiny community of Winona — “There is a school, a church and a bar: everything you need for a successful life,” Patti Witt joked about her former home.

The school caught his eye. Always a fan of old buildings, Bill went in and had a look around. Because students were on summer vacation he didn’t come across anyone, but he made note of the school and told his partner, who also had an affinity for historic structures, to check it out.

Then one day, Bill got a call from his partner.

“‘Hey, remember that old school you were telling me about?’ ” he asked me and I said, ‘Yeah did you go in it?’ He said ‘No, but I stopped the head teacher for speeding. Her car is registered just to her, and I think she is single.’ ”

So Bill developed a plan and headed over to Winona.

“I was a dog handler at the time, and I had my tracking and drug dog, Dutch, a German Shepherd, and I do a lot of dog programs in schools,” he said. “I thought ‘well, I will go up there and use my dog to get in there.’

“First she fell in love with my dog and then she started talking to me later on.”

When he arrived at her school, Patti knew something was up, but she liked him all the same.

“One of my students came in and told me there was a cop in the hallway,” she said. “… I found the timing more than coincidental.”

It also wasn’t a coincidence that Bill’s plan to leave the UP after five years was thrown to the wayside. Instead, he got married, had two kids and made his home in Bruce Crossing.

Now, so many years later, Jake’s parents are waiting for him at home. The fishing hasn’t been good — Witt only reeled in one bass — so he decides to pack up. This time, Witt takes a different route, cutting through some trees to a road behind the lake. The dirt path weaves around and leads back to his parked car. It takes a little longer, but much less effort than the way in.

Witt tucks his fishing gear into the back of his vehicle and hits the road — not for long though — before parking in front of his family home. Inside, Patti is cutting a watermelon, while Bill relaxes in the living room and Gracie reads at the dining room table. She’s sitting next to a pile of thank-you cards that Jake has been working on. He writes a few every day, but so many people reached out to congratulate him on his graduation that he can’t do them all in one sitting. That comes with the territory of being Jake Witt in a small U.P. community. If he lived somewhere bigger, Witt could go about town with some anonymity, but in the Ewen-Trout Creek area that is impossible.

“There’s a store in Bruce Crossing, Settler’s Co-Op, and I can’t go in there without having three or four conversations about basketball,” Witt said. “Or sometimes when I’m going around the UP people come up to me. A lot of people don’t even know me. But it’s not too bad, I enjoy talking to people.”

It’s a good thing too because Witt is a local celebrity. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that anyone who even remotely pays attention to basketball in the UP is going to know who Jake Witt is. But Witt takes it all in stride, and so does his family.

Gracie Witt is two years younger than Jake, and currently in her junior year at E-TC. She plays basketball and runs track as Jake did, but the younger Witt isn’t living in anyone’s shadow. In part, because she shares a close bond with her brother, complete with long car rides with music blaring, one-on-one battles in the driveway and trips to the movies. It also doesn’t hurt that Gracie has her own talents, too. An accomplished musician and artist, Gracie plays flute and piano and spends plenty of free time doing watercolors. She gravitates toward nature scenes, painting delicate birds and detailed landscapes. But perhaps the most crucial piece to the puzzle of surviving being Jake Witt’s little sister is a sense of humor.

After every game, Gracie and her parents wait — sometimes patiently and sometimes not so much — for Jake to finish his post-game duties. There are interviews with local journalists to start, and then a stream of fans who want to talk to Jake. Little kids ask for autographs and beg Jake to dunk for them. Elderly women ask for photos. And moms even try to set Jake up with their daughters.

Midway through the season, it got so out of hand that Gracie joked with her mom that she was going to buy an attendance clicker to track how many people come up to her brother after every game. (Note to Gracie: they can be purchased online for under $5.)

“There is usually a steady flow of people after the games,” she said. “I just laugh because it is funny, but I am proud because of how hard he works and how he treats those people that come up to him.”

Witt has an abundance of patience when it comes to his fans, but he’s also got a good heart to go with it. When Witt says he enjoys talking to these people, it’s not because he likes the attention, it’s because he cares about the people. And he knows what it’s like to be the little kid wanting an autograph, too. E-TC has a rich basketball history, and Witt isn’t the first celebrated player to walk the halls of his high school. When Witt was younger he looked up to Dillon Gordon, who played at Tech, and Jordan LaPlant, who played at Finlandia.

“They were my role models growing up and I was always thinking how awesome they were,” he said. “Some of the little kids were probably thinking that about me, so I always try and talk to them.”

He takes the same approach on the court. As tiny faces look on in the crowd, Witt goes about his game with stoicism. He’s never uttered a word of trash talk, rarely shows emotion on the court — be it excitement or anger — and he has never, ever, argued with a ref.

Occasionally Witt may politely ask for clarification on a call, but even though he often disagrees on the inside, he’s never shown it.

And he’s had plenty of chances. Witt is so much bigger and stronger than his opponents that refs often don’t know how to handle him. In most cases, it seems they forget how to use their whistle on Witt’s behalf, but will gladly blow it against him.

That means when the force of a blocked shot knocks over a little guard who dares enter the paint, Witt might be called for a foul; but when he has three defenders hanging on him like monkeys on a tree, a call just won’t come.

“I know I’m not going to get any calls, and I also know arguing won’t help me get calls,” he said.

Instead, Witt never expects to hear the whistle in his favor. If he does, it’s a happy surprise. And just in case Witt is tempted to show anger toward an official, he has an extra reason to remain calm.

“My dad said if I ever said anything to a ref then he would come out there [on the court] and take me out of the game,” Witt said.

Bill doesn’t make empty threats, so Jake knows his dad means it.

With a state trooper and an educator as parents, Jake and Gracie had plenty of discipline growing up. But Patti and Bill also showed patience with Jake as an athlete, letting him figure out things on his own, only offering one piece of advice.

“When it comes to athletics we only have a few rules: Don’t act like you’ve never won before; don’t act like you’ve never lost before, and don’t act like you’ve never scored before,” Bill said. Jake ended up learning some of those rules the hard way as a youngster, but learn them he did.

Jake Witt playing basketball

In third grade, Witt stepped on the basketball court for the first time. He joined the team because his friend and neighbor, Austin Berglund, was playing. His first game was in an elementary school tournament in Hurley, Wisconsin.

With five seconds left, Witt experienced the joy of basketball. His team was up by a point and he stood at halfcourt with his arms in the air. “We won!” He shouted.
Then, he experienced the pain of basketball. The opposing team stole the ball, scored, and ended up winning the game. Witt ran off the court crying. That was the first, and last time he ever celebrated on the court: lesson learned.

Then, a few years later, when Witt had firmly fallen in love with the game, he decided he was going to be Kobe Bryant. He spent hours in his gravel driveway shooting fadeaways and blasting 2000s rap.

“It wasn’t very good rap, but listening to it I thought I was a cool NBA player,” he says laughing.

These days Witt doesn’t want to be Kobe. What he wants is to be a college graduate, with a good education and a job. He doesn’t dream of the NBA, and he doesn’t dream of big college programs.

“My ultimate goal right now isn’t to play professional basketball, obviously, so I don’t really think there is a reason to go Division I if that’s not your goal,” he said. “Because if you are good and you have the chance to play professionally, they are going to find you wherever you play. If you are playing well at whatever level. Division I didn’t really matter to me because Division II isn’t as prestigious but you are more of a student than an athlete at Division II. You can focus a little bit more on school and that’s really what it is all about going to college.”

That’s how he settled on Michigan Tech, and why he never played AAU basketball.

He was contacted by a team during the summer before his senior year, but it was three hours away and practices started while school was still in session.
The team would have increased Witt’s exposure to college coaches, but would it be worth it to miss a few hours of school here and there? For Witt that was a non-question. Education over everything.

That explains the decision to play at Michigan Tech. Witt felt it was the best education he could get. It was the first school to recruit Witt, so when other places came knocking they had to compete with Tech.

There were plenty of schools.

Nearly every college in the GLIAC wanted Witt, some for basketball, some for football, and most for both. He had a few smaller DI schools show interest, and the walk-on offer at Michigan, but in the end, Tech spoke to his brain and his heart. Witt and his family didn’t have any idea what they were getting into with the recruiting process, but ultimately Tech felt right. Of course, Witt didn’t choose it on a gut instinct — he thought it through carefully and didn’t make the decision until he was certain.

Part of Ewen’s charm is that everyone has a vested interest in Witt’s success. Everyone knows who he is, and everyone wants to see him succeed. When recruiters started coming around, that came in handy.

“It sounds cliche, but it really does become like a large family,” Patti said. “People look out for us. Like when recruiters started contacting Jake in 10th grade, that was brand new to us, and they were so helpful. Everyone in the school was so proud of him.”

Ultimately, Witt made his own decision, but his parents, despite their newness to the recruiting world, wanted him to pick Tech from the start.

Bill remembers coach Kevin Luke calling him into his office one day and asking what he wanted for Jake.

That was easy: an old-school coach that would challenge him. Luke’s reply sealed the deal for Bill: “Oh, I’ll challenge him all right.”

“We told Jake we would back him in whatever decision he made when it came to college as long as he thought it all the way through,” Bill said. “Academically he made the best choice. And I like their coaches. They are old school.”

An old-school coaching staff for an old-school player; the kind of kid that still refers to his high school coach not as Brad or coach or even coach Besonen, but as Mr. Besonen. The kind that likes to spend weekend nights at E-TC lifting weights.

Tech pulled at his throwback persona, but Witt has a little bit of new age to him, too. Because no matter what, he’s still a teenager.

Jake Witt playing basketball

When Jake gets home from fishing, he spends some time relaxing with his family. Sundays are the one day of the week when they get some down time, especially when school starts up again, so the Witts like to keep things low-key.

Eventually Jake will retreat to his room, where for the first time he looks like every other boy his age. It’s a little messy with an unmade bed, and a plate on the edge of his desk. Next to the plate is a computer — one Witt built himself. That’s not exactly typical for a teenage boy, but his reasoning behind it is: he loves video games.

He started out playing an old hockey game, and a video game version of Harry Potter on a PlayStation 1 when he was younger. He loved gaming then, and on the off chance Witt got in trouble, his parents would punish him by taking away the PlayStation.

Six years ago Witt started playing Minecraft, but his junky old Toshiba laptop couldn’t handle it, so one of his dad’s coworkers taught him how to build his own computer. Witt did research, scouring magazines for a step-by-step guide. Then, he ordered the parts, and after they arrived, he had a new computer built in a matter of hours. It took some troubleshooting, but now Witt considers it one of his hobbies. He’s even built computers for his friends.

His homemade concoction runs much faster than a typical computer, which is a big help for his latest obsession: Fortnite. It’s a hobby he shares with much of the world, especially within his age demographic. The battle royale shooting game, in which players attempt to be the last one standing in a cartoon-colored environment, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

And like most things Witt does, he’s good at it, averaging over three kills a game.

Witt uses the game as a way to keep in touch with friends that have gone off to college, and soon, he will play with friends he’s left behind now that he’s at Tech. Spending the evening playing video games is the final step to what Witt would consider a perfect day.

If he had his choice, Witt would start every day by fishing, come home and relax before getting in a workout, followed by a little more relaxing and a few hours of Fortnite before going to bed and starting it all over the next day.

Of course, that’s not an option anymore. Fast forward to November and Witt’s days are spent at Michigan Tech. No more fishing, a lot less gaming and a whole lot of class work followed by practice.

On Nov. 10, Witt will play his first regular-season game in a Tech uniform. His team will take on Lewis in a tournament at NMU. Witt is a full-on Husky, but on that day back in July at Tandlund Lake, Witt couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he didn’t grow up in a tiny UP town.

“Playing Class D basketball in the UP, lots of people recruiting probably just think I’m a 6-7 guy playing against smaller people and that’s the only reason I’m good. Maybe if I had played in a bigger area I would have gotten more exposure,” he said.

The thought only lasts a moment.

“But it wouldn’t have mattered,” he said. “Education is still the most important thing.”

The sun beats down on the glassy water and Witt throws out another cast.

And in that moment it is easy to see that maybe, just maybe, Jake Witt is meant to be here after all.

Eden Laase

Eden is a co-founder of Upbeat. She has covered pro sports as a Sports Illustrated intern and chronicled Gonzaga’s Final Four run. Recently, she covered Michigan Tech hockey for the Daily Mining Gazette. Eden graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in journalism.