By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Everything will seem to speed up from here for 288 Michigan high school football teams beginning their playoff runs this weekend.
Temperatures dip below freezing, practices finish in the dark and urgency is at its utmost this time of year. But soon the reward will come into view – trips to Ford Field for the elite 11-player teams and Superior Dome for the best of the 8-player lineup.
All eight reigning champions and all eight 2017 runners-up are back as 11-player playoffs begin at the District level this weekend. Three of four 8-player finalists from last season, including one champion, are back as those brackets begin at the Pre-Regional level. A total of 125 games will be played tonight, with 19 more Saturday.
In addition to watching live from the stands, there are plenty of opportunity to watch playoff games all over the state either live or later this weekend. FOX Sports Detroit PLUS will bring the Division 7 opener at Kent City against Saugatuck to a live cable audience, and that game joins Haslett at East Lansing and Davison at Oxford to make up this week’s Prep Zone lineup streaming free of charge on FOXSportsDetroit.com and on the FOX Sports app. At least 13 more games will be viewable on MHSAA.tv, either live with subscription or free after 72 hours.
Below is a glance at a game of particular intrigue in each division. “Drive for Detroit” is powered by MI Student Aid.
Grosse Pointe South (8-1) at Dearborn Fordson (8-1)
These two make up one side of what might be the strongest District in Division 1 – on the other side Detroit Cass Tech (9-0) takes on Detroit Western (6-3). The Blue Devils won the Macomb Area Conference White for the third straight season and tripped up only Week 9 against Romeo – over the first eight games, they gave up 5.4 points per game. For the second straight regular season, Fordson’s only loss came to undefeated Belleville – and this time by only three points. The Tractors also are one of only four in-state teams to give the Technicians a close game over the last two years – losing by just five in last season’s District Final – but they can’t look past Grosse Pointe South toward a possible rematch.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Holland West Ottawa (6-3) at Hudsonville (6-3), Canton (6-3) at Detroit Catholic Central (6-3), Romeo (6-3) at Macomb Dakota (7-2). SATURDAY Brighton (7-2) at East Kentwood (8-1).
Birmingham Groves (7-2) at Birmingham Seaholm (7-2)
This is one of those few rematches from Week 9 that crop up for the start of the playoffs every season, and Groves won this neighborly meeting 26-9 last week. But don’t think things can’t change over six days – it happens, and the Oakland Activities Association Blue champion Maples still gave up only 13 points per game during their first winning regular season since 2013. That said, Groves certainly knows how to turn it up in the playoffs. The Falcons are making their sixth straight postseason appearance and lost last year’s opener by just three to Brother Rice after making the Semifinals in 2016.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Portage Central (7-2) at Portage Northern (7-2), Warren DeLaSalle (7-2) at Warren Mott (7-2), Walled Lake Western (6-3) at Fenton (7-2), St. Clair Shores Lake Shore (6-3) at Port Huron Northern (8-1).
River Rouge (8-1) at Detroit Martin Luther King (7-2)
River Rouge’s enrollment has grown by more than 350 students over the last four years, as the Panthers went from Division 5-runner-up in 2015 to making Division 4 Semifinals the last two years and now playing in Division 3. Rouge’s only loss this fall was Week 1 to Cass Tech 40-7, and King fell by nearly the same score (42-8) to the Technicians in last week’s Detroit Public School League A championship game. The Crusaders also have lots of postseason experience, winning Division 2 in 2015 and 2016 and making the Semifinals last season before losing by a point to eventual champion Warren DeLaSalle. Just as impressive this fall, King’s only other defeat was by three to reigning Division 3 champion Muskegon – which has won 23 straight games and the rest this season by an average of 42 points per.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY East Grand Rapids (6-3) at Muskegon (9-0), Battle Creek Central (6-3) at Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (7-2), Garden City (6-3) at Warren Woods Tower (8-1), Haslett (8-1) at East Lansing (8-1).
Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (6-3) at Farmington Hills Harrison (6-3), Saturday
The Harrison watch continues as John Herrington, the winningest coach in state football history, leads the Hawks into their final playoffs with the school closing next summer. After two straight losses, Harrison beat Farmington last week to earn an automatic playoff berth and slotted in Division 4 after finishing runner-up in Division 3 last season. The Cranes might not seem as dangerous as a year ago when they set a school wins record going 10-2. But they moved into the tougher Detroit Catholic League AA this fall, and all three losses this season were by seven or fewer points – and now they’re back in the familiar Division 4 bracket.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Paw Paw (7-2) at Three Rivers (8-1), Lake Odessa Lakewood (7-2) vs. Flint Powers Catholic (6-3) at Atwood Stadium, Croswell-Lexington (6-3) at North Branch (7-2), Wyoming Godwin Heights (6-3) at Grand Rapids South Christian (5-4).
Grand Rapids West Catholic (5-4) at Hudsonville Unity Christian (7-2)
It’s pretty well-known at this point that West Catholic has won five straight Division 5 titles and made six straight MHSAA Finals. The Falcons had to come back from a 1-3 start this fall and beat Coopersville in Week 9 to earn a shot at becoming an additional qualifier – but keep in mind they won it all in 2013 as an additional qualifier. Unity Christian has looked for a few years like a program inevitably on its way to Ford Field. The Crusaders made the Division 4 Semifinals in 2016 and lost last year’s D4 opener by just six to eventual champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central. They lost out on a share of a league title last week falling to Zeeland East, but both defeats this season came to Division 3 playoff teams – and Unity won three games over teams that made the Division 4 bracket.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Berrien Springs (7-2) at Hopkins (8-1), Lansing Catholic (8-1) at Olivet (8-1), Detroit Osborn (6-3) at Detroit Denby (7-2). SATURDAY Clare (8-1) at Manistee (9-0).
Michigan Center (8-1) at Grass Lake (8-1)
The Cardinals missed locking up a second straight Cascades Conference championship by less than a touchdown, falling to eventual title winner Grass Lake 14-10 in Week 6. Michigan Center led until the final two minutes – and this rematch should be a welcome opportunity. The Warriors are coming off a 55-7 loss to Division 8 contender Reading a week ago in the Cascades/Big 8 Conference champions crossover, but before that were giving up only 8.8 points per game. It’s easy to anticipate these teams keeping the score low and close again tonight.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Ishpeming Westwood (7-2) at Calumet (9-0), Ecorse (7-2) vs. Warren Michigan Collegiate (8-1) at Madison Heights Bishop Foley, Constantine (6-3) at Schoolcraft (7-2), Hemlock (8-1) at Montrose (7-2).
Saugatuck (8-1) at Kent City (8-1)
Kent City was a seven-point defeat to unbeaten Lake City from a second straight perfect regular season, and the Eagles get the chance to impress the statewide TV crowd by shutting down an Indians offense averaging nearly 51 points per game. Senior Brad Dunn leads Saugatuck with 2,189 yards and 38 touchdowns rushing, and senior Jacob Stewart (918/13) also could go over 1,000 yards for the season for the reigning Division 7 runner-up – which lost only to Schoolcraft, by a point. Kent City gives up just under 11 points per game and held Lake City to 22 below its final regular-season scoring average in that 14-7 Week 8 loss.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Cass City (7-2) at Sandusky (8-1). SATURDAY Harbor Springs (7-2) at Roscommon (8-1), Oscoda (8-1) at Iron Mountain (7-2), Detroit Loyola (6-3) at Madison Heights Bishop Foley (8-1).
Pittsford (7-2) at Reading (9-0)
The Rangers have put together strong teams over the years – they’re making their 24th playoff appearance, and the 2008 team reached the Division 7 Semifinals. But it’s a good argument this is Reading’s most impressive team of the playoff era as it outscores opponents 50-4 on average and outscored five playoff-bound teams by an average of 47-7. Pittsford has reasons to be confident too heading into its fifth straight playoffs and seventh in eight seasons. The Wildcats emerged from a four-team league where all four made the playoffs this fall, and their losses both were to playoff-bound teams. Pittsford also beat Waterford Our Lady (see below) big in Week 4 and is giving up only 8.7 points per game this fall.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Waterford Our Lady (5-4) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (8-1), Adrian Lenawee Christian (8-1) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (9-0), Saginaw Nouvel (6-3) at Harbor Beach (8-1), Mendon (5-4) at White Pigeon (7-2).
8-Player Division 1
Kingston (8-1) at Deckerville (7-2)
Deckerville has played in two straight MHSAA Finals, falling just three points short of the Division 1 title a year ago. The Eagles opened their North Central Thumb League Blue title march this fall with a 36-20 win over Kingston in Week 5, and they’re 10-0 against the Cardinals since the teams began playing each other regularly again in 2010. Kingston this fall tied its most wins since 2006, and a ninth victory would tie a high since 1999 – while also breaking the streak and making the Cardinals instant Division 1 contenders.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Battle Creek St. Philip (6-3) at Bellevue (8-1), Genesee (5-4) at Morrice (9-0), Camden-Frontier (5-4) at Colon (8-1).
8-Player Division 2
Crystal Falls Forest Park (5-4) at Powers North Central (8-1)
North Central clinched the Great Lakes Conference West ahead of second-place Forest Park thanks to a 52-28 win Week 6, and that was just the latest meeting between the two with potential championship implications. The Jets downed the Trojans 60-50 in a Regional Final in 2016 on the way to winning the 8-player title, and the Trojans beat the Jets 20-6 in last season’s playoff opener on the way to winning the Division 2 championship. North Central, with its only loss opening night to Engadine, would seem a big favorite this time – but Forest Park is putting up 44 points per game despite giving up 34 and should be comfortable if forced to trade score for score.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Rapid River (6-3) at Engadine (8-1), Marion (6-3) at Onekama (7-2), SATURDAY Peck (5-4) vs. Portland St. Patrick (5-4) at Portland.
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PHOTO: Jeremiah Lockhart and Muskegon, here against Reeths-Puffer, are among reigning champions seeking to repeat as playoffs begin this week. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)
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 email@example.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.)