'All Together' Onekama Seeks 1st Football Title

November 16, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

ONEKAMA — The Upper Peninsula is soon to be invaded by Portagers.

The village of Onekama, meanwhile, might resemble a ghost town.

A large and loyal following for the Onekama football team is geared up for a trip to the Superior Dome in Marquette, site of Saturday’s 8-Player Division 2 Football Final, where the Portagers (10-2) are taking on Rapid River (9-3) in their quest for the school’s first MHSAA football championship.

“It’s really energized the community,” said Onekama head coach John Neph. “I’m so happy that our local community has responded so well. It means so much to have this special event going on.”

Yard signs and window decorations have sprung up all over town. Residents have stepped forward to find out how they can aid the team during its journey to the championship game, while fans have shown up to games in droves as the team has advanced farther in the postseason, past the likes of Marion (22-6), Brethren (52-0) and Portland St. Patrick (28-14).

“Everyone’s supporting us. The community here is amazing, especially for the football program,” said running back/linebacker Ben Acton. “We had the most people we’ve ever had for our games in the playoffs this year. It’s awesome seeing everybody out there in the stands and after the games.”

The Portagers have given their fans plenty to cheer about. The program had four playoff wins all-time entering this season, and they have nearly doubled that total with this playoff run.

Getting to the championship game wasn’t at the forefront of Onekama’s goals this season, but it hasn’t come as a complete shock, either. The Portagers had five seniors and three top juniors returning to a squad that went 9-2 in 2017.

“We thought we could be pretty good,” said Neph. “Then we had a really good preseason camp, and we got better. We were very pleasantly surprised with the overall development of our players. Our guys have gotten better and better as the season has gone on.”

It’s a squad that has embraced the team aspect of the game. Sure, there are standouts — Acton and  junior running back/linebacker Aaron Powers have been playmakers on both sides of the ball, senior Rylan Clarke has led from his tight end position, and senior Wyatt Lawson and junior Wade Sedlar anchor the offensive and defensive lines, respectively — but the Portagers relish functioning as one cohesive unit.

“This isn’t one person’s team. Or the coaches’ team. It’s our team,” said Neph. “It’s all of us together. That has made a huge difference with the morale, and the long run we’ve had. Sometimes at the end of a season you can get tired of going to practice, and I don’t think we’ve ever experienced that. It’s a group of guys that like coming out here, enjoy working with each other. We have some fun, and we’ve been winning, which helps.”

Onekama has proven it can score points, having topped the 50-point plateau four times. The Portagers like to be known as a stout defensive team, though. They’ve backed that up by shutting out four teams this year, not counting two forfeit victories.

“We really take pride in our defense,” said senior defensive back Ben Johnson, one of four defensive players to receive accolades on the all-Midwest Central Michigan Conference West teams. “We’re a defensive team but our offense — when it clicks, it clicks too.”

The Portagers finished third in the West after they had tough losses to league champion Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (28-26) and runner-up Suttons Bay (13-8). Neph felt like the loss to Suttons Bay, which came two weeks before the start of the postseason, ignited Onekama’s push through the playoffs.

“We lost it late in the game on a long pass,” said Neph. “It felt like we were about to win the game, and to have it taken away from us like that, that was tough. I’m extremely proud of our guys. That’s where the upperclassmen stepped forward and said, ‘We lost today, but we’re going to bounce back and keep going.’ I would say that was a significant turning point for us. We got back to work and moved forward from there.”

The Portagers have reeled off four straight wins and whipped the entire school and community into a frenzy.

“It’s great,” Clarke said of the atmosphere at school. “Our math teacher looked at us today and said, ‘I still can’t believe you guys are going to the Finals.’ Our student support is tremendous. For a small community like us, this is great.”

Advancing this deep into the postseason has created a lot of additional planning and extra responsibilities for Neph and his staff, including making arrangements for hotel accommodations, transportation and meals for the team. He wouldn’t want to have it any other way, with the opportunity to win a Finals championship.

“It would just be an unbelievable, historical moment for our school to win the state championship,” he said. “It would be the crowning event of a lot of people putting hours and hours and hours of work into the football program. For the players, it would be the ultimate experience for them. Something that will last the rest of their lives.”

Win or lose, this season and this playoff performance already has created a deep bond among the 18 players on this year’s Onekama squad.

“We’re brothers,” said Clarke. “We’ll probably be brothers for the rest of our lives. We’ll probably all be coaching our kids together when we’re 30 and 40.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at sports@antrimreview.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onekama’s Ben Acton (5) finds an opening among four Portland St. Patrick defenders during last week’s Semifinal win. (Middle) Luke Mauntler (7) drags along two Manistee Catholic Central defenders during a Week 6 victory. (Photos courtesy of the Onekama athletic department.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)