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 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.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)