By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
The Whitehall vs. Montague football game actually begins on Thursday night far away from any football field, with a huge crowd from each town, bands, cheerleaders, players, coaches and school officials.
For the coin toss.
In a scene reminiscent of a Revolutionary War battle, the aforementioned delegations marched toward each other on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, and met – Whitehall in red and Montague in blue – on the bridge over the White River, which separates the two northern Muskegon County towns.
No shots were fired or punches thrown, but simply a coin was tossed high in the air by veteran MHSAA official Chuck Hulce (who, by the way, coached Montague from 1969 to 1977 and then Whitehall from 1979 to 1981) and the 110th edition of the “The Battle for the Bell” was underway.
“This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life – playing Whitehall, the cross-town rival where I know everyone, my senior year,” said Montague senior wide receiver Josh Weesies. “It’s huge for me. We’ve been grinding all summer just thinking about this game.”
Montague, with a population of 2,361 and covering 3.27 square miles, boasts the World’s Largest Working Weathervane and 1961 Miss America Nancy Fleming – and boasted a 59-48-2 edge in the all-time series over Whitehall heading into this year’s game.
Whitehall, with a population of 2,706 and covering 3.79 square miles, counters with the historic Howmet Playhouse and 11-year Major League Baseball player and Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth, who quarterbacked the Vikings to back-to-back wins in the series in 1998 and 1999.
The game has always been about bragging rights, but this year’s clash was much more. For the first time since 1985, both teams came into the game undefeated and both were state-ranked. Whitehall was 4-0 and ranked eighth in the Associated Press Division 4 poll, while Montague was also 4-0 and ranked sixth in Division 5.
The pre-game festivities on Sept. 22 were all about White Lake area unity as the two communities came together for a “Pink Out” event to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital and the fight against cancer – and the marching bands even performed together on the field before the game.
Then it was time to take sides.
“This rivalry is very special for me,” said Whitehall senior quarterback Casey Huizenga. “I know all the Montague kids. We’re friends, but during this game we’re going all out.”
Huizenga and Whitehall actually struck first in the game, which was played on a perfect early fall night in front of 5,000 fans at Montague.
Whitehall junior Tylor Russell returned the opening kickoff deep into Montague territory, setting up a 1-yard plunge by Huizenga for a quick 6-0 Vikings’ lead.
But it didn’t take long for Montague’s myriad offensive weapons to come out. On the ensuing possession, Montague senior quarterback Dylan Stever (good friends with Huizenga, incidentally) connected with junior Jake Jancek on a 16-yard touchdown pass to tie the score.
Jancek was the first of six Wildcats to score touchdowns in the game, which featured 40 points in the first quarter alone, with Montague holding a 27-13 edge. Also scoring for the Wildcats were junior Eddie Caviedes, sophomore Bryce Stark, Weesies, sophomore Kenyon Johnston and Stever.
The difference in the game was Montague’s defense completely shutting down the Whitehall offense after the first quarter.
Whitehall’s only score after the first 12 minutes was a 90-yard interception return by junior Justin Brown in the fourth quarter, which completed the scoring in a decisive 41-20 Montague victory. The night ended with fans heading for their cars and the Wildcats ringing the red, white and blue victory bell for the ninth time in the last 11 years.
“It’s fun to be here with the whole community at one game,” said 13th-year Montague coach Pat Collins, who played quarterback and led the Wildcats to the 1992 Class CC championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, where they lost to Detroit dePorres, 12-7. “It’s a real special moment every year up here.”
Collins has turned Montague into a state football powerhouse, as it’s made the MHSAA Playoffs in 11 of his first 12 seasons as head coach. What is more impressive is what his teams have done once they get there. Montague made it at least to the third round of the playoffs eight straight years from 2004 to 2011, at least to the Semifinals five straight years from 2005 to 2009 and won back-to-back Division 6 championships in 2008 and 2009.
Montague (5-1), which was upset by North Muskegon in the rain on Sept. 30, is heavily favored at Hart this week, which would set up a showdown at Muskegon Oakridge (5-1) on Oct. 14 for the West Michigan Conference title. For the playoffs, Montague’s enrollment has increased to 414 and the Wildcats are now considered a “bubble team” which could end up in either Division 5 or Division 6.
Whitehall (4-2), a larger school with 654 students, could clinch its third-straight Division 4 playoff berth with two wins over its final three games, starting with this week’s showdown at Ravenna (4-2).
While Montague has been a model of stability with just two head football coaches during the past 31 years (Ken Diamond from 1986 to 2003 and Collins from 2004 to present), Whitehall has been just the opposite.
The Vikings have had five different head coaches since 2002, but it appears they have found their man in Dewitt native Tony Sigmon, who has a 19-9 record over the past three seasons after a 1-8 start in his first season in 2013.
For Sigmon, the first step to competing for West Michigan Conference titles and MHSAA playoff victories is being able to consistently go toe-to-toe with rival Montague.
“This game, this rivalry is what high school football is all about,” Sigmon said. “It’s a game that has become a huge community event, and it drives both teams to keep getting better.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Montague players gather to ring the trophy bell after Montague defeated Whitehall, 41-20, in the "The Battle for the Bell." (Middle) Montague junior Jake Jancek elevates to grab this 16-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Stever in the first quarter, while Whitehall's JoJo Dowdell defends. (Below) The Whitehall and Montague bands performed together before the big game between the two northern Muskegon County schools. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)