Colleagues Connect in Classroom, Coaching

By Pam Shebest
Special for

September 17, 2019

MATTAWAN — When students enter one of the social studies rooms at Mattawan High School, they should not be surprised to see a white board full of Xs and Os.

It is not a game of tic-tac-toe, just a series of football plays.

With three head football coaches teaching in the same wing, there is plenty of pigskin conversation being tossed around before and after school.

Ryan Brown, who teaches social studies and power training, is in his fifth year coaching Mattawan. Wade Waldrup, who teaches social studies and English, is the first-year head coach for Lawton. And Matt Stephens, a social studies teacher, is in his fourth year guiding the program at Paw Paw.

The coaches, who are also friends, do not have to worry about going head-to-head at any time.

“There’s no chance we’ll play against each other, not in the playoffs or anything,” Waldrup said.

That is because the schools vary in enrollment enough that, should they qualify, they will end up in different MHSAA playoff divisions when those are determined after Week 9. The three schools also play in different conferences, with Mattawan in the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference West, Lawton in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Paw Paw in the Wolverine.

“I’m glad we don’t play each other because for me, I take my competition very personally and I think they’re both the same way,” Brown said. “It wouldn’t cause issues, certainly not professionally, but personally you’re not as close. You can’t share, and I would miss that.”

Added Stephens: “I appreciate the fact that I coach at a school where I come to work every day and don’t have to look at the athletes from Mattawan and know that I’m going to have to play against them.

“I think that allows me to have some comfort in that I can root for Mattawan and I can root for Lawton because I’m at a different level.”

Sharing is what the three often do, and all agree that they tap into each other’s strengths.

“Matt is more of an offensive guy,” Waldrup said. “I’m more of a defensive guy. Matt’s probably the more creative one and I think Ryan is really good at fundamentals and technique.”

Stephens said another advantage is understanding the ups and downs of the season.

“We’ve known each other for so long, honestly when one of us is down and one of us is up, it’s ‘We feel your pain,’” he said.

“It’s not this issue of we won and you didn’t. It’s more like, ‘We’ve been there before.’”

Although Lawton is 3-0 on the young season, “Matt is probably the top dog because Paw Paw (3-0) is ranked No. 1 in the state,” Waldrup said.

Mattawan is 1-2, but like Paw Paw made the playoffs last season and opened this fall with an impressive win over Kalamazoo Central.

“Honestly, rankings are just media’s way of trying to keep people interested,” Stephens said. “We’re talking to our kids about what they’re going to do to earn it. Being No. 1 is great, but Plainwell doesn’t care if we’re No. 1 and neither do any of our other opponents.

“If you get a No. 1 ranking, that just fuels the fire for other teams. We feel fortunate, blessed to be given that credit, and it’s nice for the kids. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to how you perform.”

The trio’s coaching connection goes way beyond this season.

“There’s a little bit of a coaching tree with Ryan, myself and Wade and I guess it all filters under me, but not necessarily intentionally,” Stephens said.

“I was head coach at Mattawan, so Ryan worked under me quite a while and Wade worked under me for one year before going to Constantine.”

In addition, both Stephens and Brown played football at Vicksburg High School.

Stephens was an assistant under then-coach Denny Patzer while Brown was a player there.

Brown connected with Waldrup after starting his teaching career at Mattawan 19 years ago.

“Many moons ago, Wade was my student teacher,” Brown said. “That was a fantastic experience.

“He left and went to Constantine, then came back this way.”

Waldrup said he came late to education, joining the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Clawson High School near Detroit.

He spent nine years as a Marine, then decided to go into education after returning from three years in Okinawa during Desert Storm.

Before taking the job at Lawton this year, Waldrup was Brown’s defensive coordinator at Mattawan, making a splash at the first game last season.

“Our first game last year, I always get coaches the pullovers, shorts, polos and hats, and Wade shows up wearing this gold hat and gold shirt and bright pants, and I was like ‘Where’s that from?’ Brown said, laughing.

“And he said ‘I’ve got my own stuff.’ I always tease him that he had to stand out. He was the golden child. He said he wanted the defensive guys to see him, which makes perfect sense. But at first it was like this bright yellow and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Stephens and Waldrup keep their teaching and coaching lives separate.

“When we’re here during the school day, we try very rarely to talk about the other schools that we coach at so we can be a fan of our kids,” said Waldrup, adding that they never wear gear from their football schools while teaching at Mattawan.

When Friday nights roll around, the three are rooting for each other, and they dissect the games on Monday.

“We throw ideas off each other absolutely all the time,” Stephens said.

Brown said there is a definite coaching connection between the three.

“There are some things only they get, only they understand,” he said. “They talk about the Presidents Club, the ex-presidents and how they’re so close after they leave office.

“That’s how I feel like with those guys. I can look at them and give them a look and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I know.’

“I always say I would want my kids to play for either one of those guys, to have that experience. They’re good men, and that’s the first mark of a good coach, I think.”

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 protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clockwise from left, Paw Paw’s Matt Stephens, Mattawan’s Ryan Brown and Lawton’s Wade Waldrup all teach at Mattawan during the day and coach local varsities after class is done. (Middle) From left, Brown, Stephens and Waldrup. (Middle below) Brown prepares to talk to his team during a break. (Below) Stephens sends players back onto the field during the team’s 3-0 start. (Mattawan photos by Haley Hagen/Paw Paw Courier-Leader. Paw Paw photos by Matthew Day/Hot Shotz Photography. Lawton photo courtesy of Wade Waldrup. Head shots by Pam Shebest.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)