Grace-ful Run Into Swan Valley History

November 16, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Alex Grace knew there would be high expectations when he joined Saginaw Swan Valley’s varsity football team this fall as a sophomore. 

But he also spent all last season – and most of his life – learning how to fulfill them from one of the Vikings’ best.

Grace watched proudly from the sideline last fall as his older brother Johnathan ran for 1,790 yards and 21 touchdowns. And then, taking Johnathan’s spot this fall, Alex tried to do the same in the same way.

Running with a similar physical style, Grace has helped the Vikings into their third MHSAA Semifinal in seven seasons; Swan Valley takes on Detroit Country Day in one of two Division 4 semis Saturday. He has rushed 256 times for 2,091 yards and 27 touchdowns. With 109 yards and three more touchdowns, he’ll make the MHSAA record book in both categories.

“I was expected to come in and be as good or better than him. I put it behind me,” Alex Grace said. “I just do the best I can, and see what happens.”

So far, this week's Second Half High 5 honoree been making school history and blowing those expectations away.

There are some definite similarities between the brothers. Swan Valley coach Ken Bourbina said Alex is simply carrying on the family tradition.

Like Jonathan, Alex is fast – he can run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. That’s a tick or two slower than his incredibly speedy brother, but Alex said his speed carries longer – he can beat Jonathan in a 200.

They certainly share similar styles. Jonathan liked to take defenders on, and Alex already is 6-foot and 185 pounds, with a penchant for running over instead of around.

“They both have the ability to turn it on, the ability to lower a shoulder. It’s a good mix,” Bourbina said. “There’s a few differences, but they have the same type (of style). His brother worked extremely hard for us, and (Alex) has just followed in his brother’s footsteps.”

And it’s no doubt helped to run in the footsteps of some of the same blockers. Like any respectful back, Grace is the first to thank his guys up front – tackles Tyler Branch and Anthony Martin, guards Mike Sielinski and Mitch Temple and center Brad Boehler, plus tight end Alex Dils. Branch, Sielinski and fullback Jaime Jimenez are all seniors who also blocked last season for Jonathan.

They’ve given Alex their endorsement. He said they too sense the similarities between the brothers.

“I try to run (tacklers) over. It makes me feel powerful,” Grace said. “I try to keep the runs straight ahead, get the most yards I can. I try to be just like him.”

Johnathan Grace, a redshirt freshman this fall at Michigan Tech, did his part as well to prepare his younger brother for the next level. He took Alex under his wing in the weight room over the summer and guided him through agility work, and that time together brought the brothers even closer.

Johnathan was listening to Swan Valley’s District Final game on the radio two weeks ago when Alex surpassed his yardage total from 2011.

“He was proud of me. He called me,” Alex Grace said. “He said congratulations … and he knew I could do it.”

PHOTO: Swan Valley sophomore Alex Grace (35) runs for some of his 127 yards against Freeland earlier this season. (Click to see more from the Regional Final at

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.)