By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
By the end of this opening weekend of Michigan high school football, some fans will say of their successful teams "it's just like last year," while others will boast "this looks nothing like last year, and it's going to be special."
That's perhaps the greatness of high school football above all other levels – more than at any other, the beginning of the season provides such a fresh slate that last year's winless team could become this year's league champion.
Total, 608 teams will start down that road, with the great majority of the weekend's 306 varsity openers to be played Thursday, followed by games Friday and Saturday as well.
As we'll do every week, below we've broken out some of the games of particular interest from every corner of the state. (Records shown below are from 2018.) Check out your local game, but also take advantage of the opportunity to watch any of 25 games being broadcast this weekend on MHSAA.tv, including all six from the Xenith Prep Football Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University and both from the Vehicle City Gridiron Classic at Flint's Atwood Stadium. Click for the full schedule.
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Bay & Thumb
Fenton (7-3) at Davison (7-3), Thursday
These have been two of the Flint area's powers during the 2000s, Davison riding a four-season playoff streak after bouncing back from a brief rough patch and Fenton coming off its 11th consecutive postseason appearance. They split a pair of openers in 2014 and 2015 before taking three years off, and they're both hoping to ride a strong start in this nonleague game into league title contention. Both finished a win shy of claiming a conference title a year ago.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Traverse City West (7-3) at Midland (9-4), Montrose (10-3) at Cass City (8-3), Detroit Country Day (7-3) at Flushing (7-3), Marshall (3-6) at Freeland (7-4).
Detroit Martin Luther King (12-2) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (7-4) at Wayne State University, Saturday
This year's Xenith Classic is loaded with great matchups, with this one holding a slight edge at the top of the list. Last we saw King, the Crusaders were stunning at least some of the state with a Division 3 championship game win over Muskegon. DCC is a Ford Field regular as well and looking to climb back to that level after falling in its Division 1 District Final a year ago. This will be these teams' first matchup since a District Final in 2001.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Saline (11-2) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (14-0) at Wayne State FRIDAY Oak Park (9-2) at West Bloomfield (9-3), Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-2) at River Rouge (8-2), Muskegon (13-1) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (12-2) at Wayne State.
Reading (14-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (11-1) at Olivet College, Thursday
Reading didn't just go undefeated on the way to the Division 8 title last year. The Rangers scored 678 points, 10th most in MHSAA 11-player history. Pewamo-Westphalia will provide one of Reading's most formidable challenges of the last few seasons, however. The Pirates missed Ford Field last fall for the first time since 2014, falling to eventual Division 7 champion New Lothrop in a Regional Final.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Clare (9-2) at Alma (9-2), Hudson (4-5) at Ithaca (8-2), Muskegon Oakridge (9-2) at Belding (7-3), Mason (5-4) at Okemos (7-4).
Northern Lower Peninsula
New Lothrop (13-1) at Lake City (12-1), Thursday
This carries as much intrigue as just about any opener in the state, large schools or small. As noted above, the Hornets are the reigning Division 7 champions, finishing 13-1 last fall and reaching the Final with a 51-22 Semifinal win over Lake City. That was the Trojans' only loss of the season, repeating 2017 when its only defeat came in a Semifinal against eventual Division 7 champion P-W.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY DeWitt (12-1) at Traverse City Central (7-3), McBain (8-3) at Kingsley (10-2), Millington (7-4) at Maple City Glen Lake (5-5), FRIDAY Manton (4-5) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (9-2).
Southeast & Border
Chelsea (10-4) at Dexter (6-4), Friday
Dexter football was one of the state's best stories of the 2019-20 school year, posting its first winning record since 2010 and earning the first playoff berth in program history. That gives this annual Southeastern Conference White matchup more buzz than ever before. Chelsea did win last season's meeting 34-20 on the way to finishing 10-4 and Division 4 runner-up.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Madison Heights Madison (13-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (9-3), Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-1) at Blissfield (7-5), Napoleon (5-5) at Brooklyn Columbia Central (9-2), Carleton Airport (4-5) at Ida (8-3).
Jackson Lumen Christi (13-0) at Kalamazoo United (11-1), Friday
Storylines are everywhere. Lumen Christi has won three straight Division 6 championships and at 23 games carries the state's longest active winning streak. United, made up of students from Hackett Catholic Prep and Kalamazoo Christian, tied the best record for either school together or apart by finishing 11-1 a year ago. However, United graduated one of the state's most prolific quarterbacks ever in Eric Wenzel, now at Western Michigan University, and coach Jesse Brown is now the Lumen Christi athletic director.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY St. Joseph (5-5) at Battle Creek Central (7-4), Holland West Ottawa (6-4) at Stevensville Lakeshore (5-5), Grand Rapids West Catholic (5-5) at Berrien Springs (7-3), Decatur (6-5) at Mendon (7-5).
Negaunee (5-4) at Iron Mountain (8-3), Thursday
After a rare sub-.500 season in 2017, Negaunee got back to 5-4 a year ago but missed making the playoffs by a win. The Miners' closest defeat came on opening night, 12-9 to Iron Mountain, which went on to post one of the state's best turnarounds of 2018 at 8-3 after going 1-8 the season before. These two should be in the mix for the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title once again.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Gladstone (4-5) at St. Ignace (5-4), Bark River-Harris (2-7) at Gwinn (6-4) FRIDAY West Iron County (8-3) at Munising (4-5), Marinette (Wis.) (4-5) at Menominee (2-7).
Reed City (11-1) at Montague (11-3), Friday
This will be the third straight opening-night meeting between these two playoff regulars, and the first two were decided by at least three touchdowns. But last year's came with a twist; Reed City won 34-13, but Montague went on to finish 11-3 and Division 6 runner-up. The Coyotes, meanwhile, suffered their only loss in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and sixth time in eight, falling in a Division 5 Regional Final.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Rockford (7-5) at Grand Rapids Christian (8-3), Saginaw Swan Valley (12-1) at Cedar Springs (10-2), Zeeland West (8-3) at East Grand Rapids (6-4), Hudsonville Unity Christian (12-2) at Allendale (5-5).
Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (10-1) at Climax-Scotts (4-5 in 11-player), Friday
Another handful of teams switched to 8-player from 11 this fall, and Climax-Scotts might be the most anticipated mover over the last few seasons. Last fall was the first since 2002 that the Panthers didn't win at least eight games. They'll be greeted by Tri-unity, which has established itself as an 8-player power and posted double-digit wins last season for the second time in three years.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Morrice (13-0) at Kingston (8-2), Bellevue (9-2) at Martin (6-4 in 11-player), Powers North Central (8-2) at Cedarville (7-5) at DeTour FRIDAY Crystal Falls Forest Park (6-5) at Pickford (12-1).
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PHOTO: Friday (and this week Thursday) night lights return to football fields all over the state this weekend. (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.)