By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – DeWitt head football coach Rob Zimmerman had every right to talk about how good it felt to capture his school’s first-ever MHSAA Finals football championship Saturday night at Ford Field.
But all he wanted to talk about after DeWitt’s 40-30 victory over River Rouge in the Division 3 Final was the character and drive of his players. That’s what was first and foremost on his mind.
“It’s unbelievable, but I think the greatest part of it all is this is such a great group of kids,” said the veteran coach, who previously has coached four Finals runners-up, the most recent in 2013. “I’ve been saying it all year long, but their character is unbelievable – the motivation, the drive, the leadership. If there’s a group of kids who deserve to win a state championship, it’s this group. I’m so happy for them.”
Total, the program was making its sixth championship game appearance, seeking its first title.
And it didn’t take long Saturday for Zimmerman and his group to take steps toward earning it.
Junior quarterback Tyler Holtz broke open a scoreless game at the 5:50 mark of the first quarter, connecting with senior Blake Beachnau for a 15-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.
River Rouge would answer back early in the second quarter, as senior Mareyohn Hrabowski would find junior Jalen Holly for a 52-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion pass from Hrabowski to freshman Nicholas Marsh gave Rouge an 8-7 lead.
But it was at that point that the DeWitt defense stepped things up. And it also was the point when Holtz began to take over the game. The Associated Press’ Player of the Year in Divisions 3 and 4 threw two more touchdown passes before halftime, then added another midway through the third quarter to help his team to a 27-8 lead. All three scores went to different receivers – eight yards to senior Andrew Debri, 35 yards to senior Nick Flegler and 25 yards to junior Thomas McIntosh.
“That’s why he’s the player of the year,” Zimmerman said of his junior signal caller. “He was front and center today, and his composure was unbelievable. He’s just off the charts, and he was the difference-maker in this game.
“We felt that we had the matchup advantage in the passing game going into this because our receivers are very good. We felt like we could throw the ball, too. We just had to mix in the run enough to take some shots without them just playing pass the whole time like they did against (Detroit Martin Luther) King (in the Regional Final).”
Holtz finished the game 12-of-16 passing for 177 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed the ball 15 times for a game-high 118 yards – and another score. River Rouge head coach Corey Parker admitted his team couldn’t find a way to stop Holtz.
“(Holtz) is able to throw the ball on the run, and that creates threats to a defense like no other,” Parker said. “Throwing the ball on the run, that’s truly a dual-threat guy. He didn’t really run the ball on the perimeter, he ran the ball on the interior and he was able to throw the ball real well.”
Hrabowski did his best to keep his team in the game. A four-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marsh early in the fourth helped keep it a two-touchdown game. He also added a three-yard touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion to cap off a game in which he threw for 227 yards and ran for another 94, while accounting for all of his team’s touchdowns.
“They didn’t give up. Their kids played hard,” Zimmerman said of Rouge (9-2). “They’re the defending state champs so we knew they weren’t going to go easy. We kept scoring and they kept coming back. I’m just so proud of our kids.”
Rouge defeated Muskegon, 30-7, in last year’s Division 3 Final. Hrabowski returned this season, but many of the players on this year’s roster were new.
“Our goal is to get here (every year),” Parker said. “If you’ve got young guys making plays like that, you know exactly what your future looks like, so I’m pretty excited about what we’re going to do moving forward.”
DeWitt (12-0) capped off a magical season which saw its offense put up nearly 500 points in 11 games played, while its defense was dominant, allowing just 78, including Saturday’s Final. Flegler and fellow seniors Grant Uyl and Cooper Brumfield all led the team with 10 tackles each.
“We have unity, no matter what, on defense,” said Flegler, who also handled all the kicking duties for the team. “Our mindset is always, ‘What the next play? What’s the next play?’ We don’t linger on failure and we’re always looking to improve on the next play, and I think that’s what brings us success.”
PHOTOS: (Top) DeWitt junior Thomas McIntosh (10) looks back to see if defenders are closing in as he makes his way toward the end zone Saturday. (Middle) DeWitt quarterback Tyler Holtz breaks into the open. (Click for more from 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.)