By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
DETROIT — The Grand Rapids South Christian community wouldn't allow Derek Woltjer to feel nervous or unsure of himself.
As soon as it became apparent that he would start for injured star quarterback Jon Wassink in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game, Woltjer was bombarded with encouraging messages from fans, teammates and friends.
Wassink broke his collarbone a week ago in a Semifinal victory over Comstock Park. Later that night, Woltjer was told he would start the title game against Detroit Country Day on Friday at Ford Field.
"I felt awful that he couldn't play," Woltjer said. "He's one of the biggest parts of our team, but I was ready to step up. I had people calling me, giving me texts that night, telling me they believe in me, telling me they have full confidence, telling me they stand behind me. I was very blessed with the people in the community."
That kind of support had a calming effect on Woltjer, who accounted for four touchdowns in South Christian's 40-7 victory over Country Day.
Woltjer, a senior who played sparingly at quarterback this season, was 7 for 7 for 88 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing 15 times for a game-high 136 yards and two scores.
"If I wouldn't have had all that (encouragement), my nerves today would've been just off the charts," Woltjer said. "I slept a good 10 hours last night. I wasn't nervous up until the kickoff today. With people behind you like that, it takes the nerves away from you quite a bit."
There was no need to shake off any rust for Woltjer, who marched the Sailors down the field on their opening drive and scored on a 13-yard run with 3:21 left in the first quarter. It became 14-0 when Woltjer hit Jason Miller for a 41-yard touchdown pass on South Christian's second drive with 9:13 left in the second quarter.
"I knew he had it in him," South Christian coach Mark Tamminga said. "I talked to Derek before the game, just me and him, and I said, 'Derek, you don't have to win this football game for us. Play within yourself and make the plays you know you can make.' That's what he did. He did a tremendous job."
The Sailors' coaching staff made sure the team didn't get down over the loss of Wassink, a sophomore who threw for 3,400 yards and rushed for more than 700 this season.
"I knew we could win this without Jonny," said senior receiver Austin Diekevers, who scored two touchdowns. "Our coach has been telling us all week that Jonny is only one person. We've got 57 kids on this team. It takes more than one person to win a football game."
The Sailors kept Wassink's injury under wraps all week. Country Day prepared to face a South Christian team that would throw the ball all over the field, but instead got a squad that ran 39 times for 291 yards.
"We kind of prepared for No. 12 (Wassink)," Country Day coach Dan MacLean said. "We've been in that situation. Once several years ago, our quarterback broke his arm in the Semifinals and we won a thriller. Credit to those kids. They showed a lot of resolve and I think they kind of play up for the guy who goes down. They played very well. We obviously didn't, but a lot of that was attributable to them."
Country Day's only touchdown was a 54-yard pass from Tyler Wiegers to Maurice Ways with 3:40 left in the first half, cutting the margin to 14-7.
The Sailors took that lead into the break, but seized control of the game with two touchdowns in a 1:28 span of the third quarter. Woltjer hit Diekevers with a 20-yard touchdown pass on a corner route to make it 21-7 with 7:54 left in the third. Chad Sterk, who ran 11 times for 103 yards, made it 27-7 after a quick three-and-out by the Yellowjackets when he took a punt 31 yards to the end zone. On the punt return, he was aided by a devastating block by Seth VanEngen, a block that elicited some "ooohs" when it was replayed on the large screens at Ford Field.
The rout was on when Woltjer broke free for a 69-yard touchdown run with 2:24 left in the third quarter and Diekevers scored on a 6-yard run with 8:00 to go in the game.
"We probably ran the ball more than we've run the ball all year, there's no doubt about it," Tamminga said. "Derek ran the ball. Our running backs, our line played phenomenal tonight. They opened up holes for our backs and Derek."
It was the second MHSAA championship for South Christian, which also won the Division 4 title in 2002. The Sailors started the season 4-3 before winning their final seven games.
"I didn't think we'd win by this much, but I'm not surprised that we did win," Woltjer said. "We did very well today."
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids South Christian quarterback Derek Woltjer rushes for some of his 136 yards during Saturday's Division 4 Final. (Middle) South Christian players celebrate their MHSAA championship. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)