Britton Deerfield Finding Fast Success After Move to 8-Player Football

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

September 28, 2021

BRITTON – Britton Deerfield’s football team is learning to win again.

The Patriots have transitioned from 11-player to 8-player football this season in a big way. Playing their first season under Michigan’s 8-player format, the Patriots are 5-0 through five weeks and already clinched the program’s first league championship since 2000.

“I think it’s been great for our program,” said senior quarterback Nicolas Johnson. “We’re having a lot of success. I think the team is really focused. All I care about is us winning.”

After struggling mainly due to low numbers at the varsity, junior varsity and middle school levels the last several years, BD is doing a lot of winning this year. In fact, the Patriots have been dominant. After accepting a forfeit in Week 1, BD has won by scores of 64-8, 38-12, 68-0 and 54-16. They are 3-0 in the new Tri-River 8 Conference with one league game remaining. Every other team has at least one loss, meaning they can do no worse than share the league title.

“The league championship is nice,” he said. “I think some of our guys kind of forgot what it felt like to be a contender.”

The last time BD won a league championship was during a run of three straight Tri-County Conference titles from 1998 to 2000. 

Technically, this is the first conference championship in school history. 

Britton and Deerfield are two small communities in Lenawee County. The Deerfield school building opened in 1874 and the Britton building in 1893. They were two distinct school districts for more than 100 years.

Britton Deerfield footballDuring the early 1990s, both schools were struggling with low participation in some varsity sports. In 1993-94, the varsity football and track teams formed co-ops and played as Britton-Deerfield. The Britton-Deerfield football program had some outstanding teams, winning multiple conference titles and sending several players into the college ranks. Two of those are head coaches at Division III Michigan colleges today – Dustin Breuer at Albion and Dan Musielewicz at Olivet College – and several others are head coaches at the high school level. 

As more and more sports became co-op programs, the schools continued to operate separately until 2011 when the school boards of both communities voted to adopt a shared service plan. On July 1, 2011, just before Independence Day, voters in the two communities approved consolidation of the two schools into one – Britton Deerfield. 

Erik Johnson took over the BD football program in 2017. The Patriots went 1-8 in back-to-back years but made the playoffs in 2019. Last year BD went 1-6. Soon after the season ended, school officials announced the team would be moving to 8-player football this year.

“I spent most of the winter watching YouTube videos and talking to 8-man coaches,” Johnson said. “I love information. I was curious about how some schools ran practices and what offenses they run and what the difference was on the 40-yard-wide field. I talked to coaches all over the place, asking questions.”

BD had played a couple of seasons of 8-player junior varsity football because of low numbers, but the varsity level was all new this year.

“We hit the ground running,” Johnson said. “It was great to have the summer workouts where we could build some camaraderie. We had some new guys that we needed to get up to speed. We had some six-on-sixes and seven-on-sevens too. That helped.”

BD committed to two years of 8-player football, and then will evaluate the program and where it is headed. Johnson said it all depends on numbers.

“If we get to a point where we are back to a 20-25 player roster, 11-player is what we’ll play,” he said. “But if we only have 12-13 kids in the entire middle school program, we won’t be playing 11-man. That’s not feasible.”

While trying to build a schedule from scratch, Johnson found other schools in the same boat. Five decided to form the Tri-River 8 Conference – Britton Deerfield, Concord, Vandercook Lake, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Vermontville Maple Valley. 

Playing nine new opponents added an extra dimension to preparation for the season. 

“I watched a lot of film, but it was from previous years,” Johnson said. “I just tried to learn as much about the opponents as I could.”

Britton Deerfield footballThe season got off to a slow start when BD’s first opponent – an Ohio school – canceled due to lack of available players. Since then, the Patriots have been unstoppable, rolling to four on-the-field wins. They have had several big moments, but last week’s performance by Nicolas Johnson was eye-popping. 

The quarterback ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 101 yards and another score. Over four games, he has 623 yards rushing and 375 passing. He’s accounted for 17 touchdowns. 

Nicolas, known as “Nico,” is the son of Erik – who also serves as athletic director - and BD superintendent Stacy Johnson. Nico’s brother Carson is a sophomore on the Patriots JV team, and his grandfather John is an assistant coach. John and Erik have coached together for nearly 20 years. 

Nico is a three-sport star at BD and a member of the MHSAA’s Student Advisory Council. 

“It’s always fun to watch him,” Erik Johnson said. “I thought he would have a really good year. Once he gets in the open, he can make guys miss.”

Nico said the biggest difference between 11 and 8-player football is having room on the field to run.

“Once you beat the linebacker, there is usually no one else behind them,” he said. “I feel I have the ability to see the cutback lanes better. It’s a lot different.”

Johnson hopes to play college football. 

“My passion is definitely football,” he said. “That one thing I have talked to (college) coaches about is whether or not playing 8-player affects my chances of playing in college, and they say no.”

Coach Johnson said when it comes down to it, football is football – no matter how many players are on the field. 

“It’s still blocking and tackling,” he said. “It comes down to execution on offense and defense and being prepared in all three phases of the game.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Britton Deerfield quarterback Nico Johnson launches a pass during a Week 4 win over Vandercook Lake. (Middle) Johnson and BD head coach Erik Johnson (also his father) discuss strategy. (Below) Nico Johnson follows his blockers against the Jayhawks. (Photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

December 14, 2022

LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.

Southwest Corridor“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.

John GuilleanGuillean 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.”

Great anticipation

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.

Derek GriblerGribler 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 ShebestPam 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 pamkzoo@aol.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.)