Big-city pipeline to Bay

Norse complement recruiting with urban connections

Mike Mattson | Daily Press From left, Alfonzo Fields, Kobi Barnes and Rasonte Smith pose in front of a Bay College sign on a recent warm winter day. The trio opted to leave their big cities and compete for the Norse men’s basketball team.

ESCANABA – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School senior basketball player Rasonte Smith was approached one day about becoming a student-athlete at Bay College.

Smith was attending Indy Met in downtown Indianapolis when the offer to venture north to parts unknown came his way.

“I never even heard of the U.P.,” Smith said on a recent quiet Friday morning in the Bay College Student Center. “I didn’t know anything about this town. I wanted to go somewhere far away to experience something different.”

Smith and Milwaukee freshman teammates – Kobi Barnes, Alfonzo Fields and Dontae Ellis (South Division High School) – are indeed experiencing a new culture while playing on the Norse men’s basketball team. They left the big city for a long cold winter, ice shacks, pasties, slower-paced lifestyle and – eh – unique regional accents.

“Kobi and I came up here together for a visit during our spring break in high school,” said Fields, a quick guard who along with Barnes excelled at inner-city Milwaukee Vincent High School. “I had this being a pro and a con.

“It’s a good thing because it’s a first-year (basketball) school. We could establish it ourselves and start it as new. But it’s country. We’re not used to this. We’re used to living in a big city and having stuff to do almost every day.”

Basketball players at Bay College stay busy during the season with studies, practices, conditioning, travel and games. So forgive Barnes if he hasn’t been ice fishing, tasted a pasty or labeled himself an honorary Yooper just yet.

“This is my first time in the Upper Peninsula,” said Barnes, a blossoming 6-foot-10 center. “I never heard of it. It’s cold. I tease others about how small it is here. I’m used to the bigger city. It’s a little boring here because I don’t know anybody. But everybody is treating us nice.”

Bay College revived its men’s basketball program again this season after a 34-year layoff.

Matt Johnson, Bay men’s coach and athletic director, has implemented a two-prong approach to recruiting.

First, it’s attracting area prospects, and second, pursuing talent from big cities like Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

“First off and the most important thing is the heart and soul of all of our athletic programs is going to be Upper Peninsula kids, especially from the Central U.P. and Delta County,” Johnson said. “This is where our bread and butter is going to be. That is what we want to do and that is who we will build it around.

“But we have to supplement that with some kids we just can’t find around here. You look at Dontae Ellis (6-5, 250) and Kobi Barnes (6-10, 220). There aren’t a lot of kids that big and strong walking around Escanaba and Gladstone. Unfortunately, we have to go elsewhere to fill those holes.”

So Johnson uses his Minnesota background as head coach at Hibbing Community College and St. Mary’s University. The Gladstone native maintains relationships at some of the inner city schools that have paid dividends for him in the past.

“I have been doing this awhile and have connections with the high school coaches these guys played for and that was my in,” Johnson said about his Milwaukee and Indianapolis pipeline. “Kobi and Alfonzo came from Milwaukee Vincent, which year in and year out is one of the premier basketball programs in the state of Wisconsin. Coach (Ravonte) Dantzler does a heck of a job. I knew they would come in well-schooled and help us take that step forward with our program. We are fortunate to have four very good young men come to Escanaba and be a part of our first basketball team in 34 years.”

Ellis’ season, unfortunately, has been limited due to injury.

Overall, Johnson said the transition for the big-city players has gone well. They live in the apartments on campus. And they admit missing their families, but smart phones make communication much better than the old days of Norse basketball.

Johnson said natives like Escanaba’s Tyler Willette, Bark River-Harris’ Jace Briggs, Manistique’s Darien Nichols, Negaunee’s Dre’ Tuominen and Menominee’s Marcus McKenney have helped in the transition.

“There are bumps in the road as with any freshmen in college,” Johnson said. “The biggest things is they are good kids who come from good families and we’ve surrounded them with other good kids and a great network of people at Bay who make sure they succeed.”

Johnson said it’s good for the urban players to experience the rural U.P. culture and vise versa.

“Indianapolis and Milwaukee are night and day compared to Escanaba,” he said. “It’s good for these kids to experience some of these things. They don’t see an ice shack. They don’t see a hunting camp. They probably have never eaten a pasty before. They come up here and give us a hard time about the town names. They laugh about Negaunee and Ontonagon and they can’t pronounce it.

“It’s a credit to the Tyler Willettes and the Jace Briggs’ and the Darien Nichols and Marcus and Dre’ and the other kids from the U.P. to take these guys under their wings and help them have a good experience in the U.P. because it clearly is a culture shock.”

Johnson said he has three points of emphasis to target recruits from the big cities and the U.P. – “My goal is to help them become better people first, better students second and better basketball players third.”

Johnson’s wants to get the players ready who desire to move to the next level. He wants them to excel academically and athletically to make the transition to possible Division I and Division II opportunities.

“I have heard from Division I and Division II coaches from all over the Midwest about some of our guys,” said Johnson, whose team is 13-7 entering Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Finlandia University in Hancock. “All the credit goes to them. These kids are buying in. They are working hard and doing what we ask them to do.”

Barnes (11.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg) is an obvious attractive recruit for the next level due to his size. He is using Bay College as a springboard for the next opportunity.

“I am doing anything I can,” said Barnes, who is making a habit lately of producing double-doubles (points, rebounds). “Coach is pushing us very hard. I talk to him about what I need to do to get better.”

Overall, the men’s basketball team has compiled a team grade point average above 3.0. Smith, however, passed all of his first-semester classes, but just barely missed the minimum GPA and is ineligible for the second semester.

Smith is practicing and traveling with the team, but can’t compete in games. He said he learned a lesson and is moving forward to returning to the Norse lineup next season.

“I am coming back, it won’t happen again,” he said.

Fields (10.9 ppg, 1.6 apg, 1.6 spg) also is using Bay College to prepare for his future in basketball and life.

“It’s teaching me how to be a man and how to live on my own,” said Fields, who is pursuing a career as an athletic trainer. “I have no regrets. I want to move on to the next level for basketball, and get my degree. I want to be a grown man when it’s all said and done.”

The revival of the Bay men’s program and birth of the women’s basketball program has been a success. Big crowds have been the norm at the Northern Lights YMCA Gymnasium to watch both teams compete.

Johnson and players have been pleased with the community’s response.

Moving forward, look for future Bay rosters to be filled with U.P. kids and some big-city players like Fields, Barnes, Smith and Ellis.

“It’s been a wild ride so far,” Johnson said. “It’s been an awful lot of fun. But all the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place.

“I think we have at least four or five scholarship players in this freshman class. I think there will be an awful lot of Division I and Division II scholarship schools nosing around our gym next year because of guys like Kobe and Alfonzo and Rasonte and Marcus and Dre’ and right down the list.”