DETROIT – The 11 on the field for Pewamo-Westphalia’s football team may have looked different at any given time this season because of mounting injuries, but no worries for the Pirates.
They just kept playing. Consequently, they continue to add MHSAA Finals hardware to the trophy case.
In a defensive battle of unbeatens and mirror images, senior Dak Ewalt’s 35-yard touchdown burst with 5:50 remaining lifted perennial power P-W to a 14-10 victory over first-time Finals qualifier Lawton in the MHSAA Division 7 title game Saturday at Ford Field. It was the fourth title in six years for the Pirates.
“Just the resiliency that this group had. There were so many times this year when we could have broke, but they just seemed to get stronger,” said P-W coach Jeremy Miller, who improved to 105-9 in nine seasons at the helm.
“I can’t really explain it, but it just makes you proud as a coach to see them get through that.”
P-W capped its third 14-0 season in six years. The Pirates added to their trophy case, which already features awards from 2016, 2017 and 2019 championships, plus runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2015.
It definitely wasn’t easy this season, however. A number of key players missed significant time with injuries. For example, Ewalt was sidelined by a broken arm at the start of the season and missed last week’s 28-21 Semifinal victory over Traverse City St. Francis because of a concussion.
When the speedy 5-foot-9, 180-pound Ewalt got the call Saturday, he was ready.
After Lawton (13-1) took a 10-7 lead in the hard-fought game on senior Ethan O’Donnell’s 43-yard field goal with 10:06 left – the fifth-longest field goal in 11-Player Finals history – Ewalt and the Pirates answered. He took a dive handoff and sprinted untouched for what proved to be the winning TD.
“It meant a lot, coming here together, duking it out with a really good team over there,” said Ewalt, who finished with a game-high 61 yards on eight carries. “Just a really heart-felt moment – couldn’t believe it.”
Lawton coach Wade Waldrup, who is 30-4 in four seasons, shouldered the blame for having the Blue Devils in the wrong defensive scheme on P-W’s game-winning TD.
Miller believed that eventually P-W would find a crease, and the Pirates did.
“I know for a while it looked like we were just banging into a brick wall, but they were bringing so many guys, we thought if we could find that crease, then he’d be gone,” Miller said. “Dax’s a tremendous runner. This guy’s put in a ton of work in the weight room, and I’m so happy to see him break to that next level because I knew once he got there, he was gone.”
It took a while for Lawton to gets its footing in the game. The Blue Devils exhibited some early jitters.
They fumbled on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, P-W senior quarterback Cam Cook scored on a 3-yard keeper around right end to stake the Pirates to a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the contest.
P-W stayed in attack mode, as the Pirates recovered an onside kick. They drove into the red zone, but Lawton’s defense tightened and the Blue Devils settled into the flow of the game.
It was a brand-new game with 1:13 left in the half, when Lawton senior QB Landon Motter hit junior Luke Leighton on a 41-yard strike down the sideline to knot the score at 7.
“You watched the game, it took us about 5 seconds to get over it,” Waldrup said. “We had the long pass (34 yards from P-W’s Cook to Brock Thelen, setting up Cook’s TD) and we had the fumble, and that was it. From that point on, I would say (that) Pewamo would say we played them even except for one play at the end of the game.”
P-W finished with a 240-204 edge in total offense, including a 139-86 advantage in rushing yards. Seniors Ashtin Wirth (fumble recovery) and Landon Nurenberg led the Pirates defense with eight tackles apiece.
Lawton senior all-stater Jake Rueff, who entered with a state-leading 49 total TDs (46 rushing), managed only 50 yards on 16 carries. He closed his spectacular season with 2,367 yards on the ground.
Motter finished the game 8-of-17 passing for 118 yards with one interception. Senior Drew Stephayn paced Lawton’s defense with a game-high 10 stops, while junior Carter Cosby had nine tackles and a pick.
Lawton’s run to Ford Field was a long time in the making. Seven seniors had started on the varsity team since their sophomore seasons. The Blue Devils put their small southwestern Michigan town on the map and captivated the community.
“It’s legendary. I mean, Lawton’s never seen anything like it,” Motter said with red eyes during the postgame press conference. “We haven’t even won a District title before this year, and then we won a District and then we went on to win a Regional and a Semifinal, and here we are.”
And here are the Pirates – hoisting another state-title trophy.
There were plenty of challenges for P-W, which was saddled by injuries all season long. In the third game, senior back Tanner Wirth – an all-stater as a sophomore – was lost to injury. In consecutive weeks, Cook and Thelen were injured. Connor Pohl and Cade Stump also suffered injuries.
Miller noted that many of his team’s injuries happened in freakish ways.
“It’s a next-man-up thing. These guys all train, and they’ve all got to be ready – they know that,” Miller said. “Being a small school, you know, if somebody goes out, we’re not really deep. They just do a great job being ready.”
Cook suffered a knee injury in Week 5 that he thought might cost him the season. He returned in last week’s victory over St. Francis and split reps with junior Troy Wertman.
For the Cook and Pirates, it was all about being ready when your number is called. On Saturday, Cook scored the game’s first TD, and he kept the Blue Devils defense honest by going 6-of-15 passing for 101 yards with one pick.
“Just going down with an injury, it was really hard for me in my senior year,” Cook said, “and to fight back, rehab back into this position, it’s just amazing to come out like this.”
PHOTO (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia’s Dak Ewalt celebrates his fourth-quarter score that proved the game winner Saturday. (Middle) The Pirates’ Troy Wertman (17) looks to elude Lawton’s Kallon Motter (8) and Carter Cosby (2). (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)