By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
KALKASKA – It was a whirlwind weekend for Jeremy Wilkinson.
The Kalkaska football coach led his unbeaten Blazers to a 35-0 victory over Cheboygan last Thursday. Then, 24 hours later, Wilkinson was inducted into the Northern Michigan University Sports Hall of Fame as part of the school’s Homecoming festivities.
“It’s a great honor,” the Kalkaska High School graduate said. “I remember 22 years ago looking at all the Hall of Fame plaques (in the Superior Dome) and thinking how cool it would be to be on that wall, too.”
Wilkinson, a wide receiver at Northern Michigan, still holds the career records for receiving yards (3,367) and touchdowns (35).
“This is a small town,” Kalkaska senior quarterback Hunter Suydam said. “Not too many (college) players come out of here, (certainly) not Hall of Famers. It’s pretty special.
“But he doesn’t really talk about it. It’s mainly, ‘Yeah, I played college football. Now, let’s get back to work.’”
That was Wilkinson’s mindset Monday as the Blazers began preparations for a big road task Friday at Boyne City.
With its 5-0 record, Kalkaska’s best start since the 1981 team went 9-0, the team’s generated quite a buzz in the community. But a difficult second half schedule includes games with Boyne City (3-2), Traverse City St. Francis (5-0) and Grayling (3-2).
It’s a stretch that promises to define the Blazers’ season.
“To be 5-0 is great, but our goal is the playoffs and we’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us,” Suydam said. “We need to focus on that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-0, if you can’t finish it off.”
Wilkinson has turned the program around since taking over in 2009. The Blazers are in the midst of a fourth winning season in five years – and a possible third playoff appearance during that span. One more win assures that.
“We know it takes one more win to make it into the playoffs,” Wilkinson said, ‘but we also know it’s not going to be easy. The next four weeks will be tough. We have quality opponents. We definitely have to clean up some mistakes we’ve been making the last couple weeks.”
Wilkinson is not surprised by the 5-0 start, which includes a 21-18 win over Leroy Pine River, a 4-1 squad that is ranked No. 9 in this week’s Associated Press Division 6 rankings. After all, the Blazers finished 5-4 a year ago and returned several players with at least three years of varsity experience.
One key returner was Suydam, who has completed 36 of 69 passes for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in four games (the Blazers won one game by forfeit). Two weeks ago, he threw for 292 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-21 triumph over Elk Rapids. He was 7 of 11 for 103 yards and two more scores against Cheboygan.
“Over the past few years we haven’t thrown the ball a ton,” Wilkinson said, “but this year we’ve opened it up a little more because of the speed and athleticism of our skills guys and the size in our line. It’s nice to be able to throw because it takes defenses out of their comfort zone. Now they’ve got to drop back and try to cover instead of loading seven to eight players in the box. “
Suydam, now in his second year at quarterback, is still learning the position as far as reads, Wilkinson said.
“But he’s starting to put it together,” the coach added.
Wilkinson is quick to credit Suydam’s receivers as well as a line that includes tackles Luke Sexton and Seth Riddle, guards Jake Disbrow and Brad Berger and center Ed Davidson. Nolan Mitchell is the leading receiver with 15 catches for 265 yards and four scores. Hayden Zimmerman has added 10 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns while tight end Jake Kies has contributed five receptions for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our line has played well and our receivers are getting open,” Wilkinson said. “Once the ball is in their hands, they’re making plays. The last two weeks we’ve had plays where we’ve caught the ball within five to eight yards of the line of scrimmage and taken it 60, 70, 80 yards for touchdowns.’
Mitchell’s the leading rusher with 258 yards and three scores.
Defensively, the Blazers are paced by linebacker Gavin Peterson, who has a team-high 32 tackles. Mitchell and Disbrow are next with 23 and 21 stops, respectively. Kies, a defensive end, has four sacks.
“Our defense has been playing great and that’s because they’re playing aggressively,” Wilkinson said. “They’re flying around. They want to hit.”
The Blazers’ roster features 18 seniors.
“Fifteen were on varsity as sophomores,” Suydam said. “Yes, we were 2-7 (two years ago), but that year of experience helped us.”
One of the seniors, receiver-linebacker Jacob Shier, broke his fibula early in the opening game. Shier, who has been on the varsity since his freshman season, still attends practice regularly to be around his teammates.
“I want to be here for the guys,” he said. “This class has been working together since third grade and it’s clicking right now. There’s a lot of talent on this team, more so than we’ve had in a long time. It’s looking good. Everybody’s buying in.”
The experience bleeds down into the junior class. Four juniors are in their third year on varsity.
“What we’re seeing on the football field is a credit to the program as a whole,” athletic director Justin Thorington said. “It starts at the top with the coaches creating a program that our student-athletes are really engaged and interested in, and working hard at.
“Plus, we have a giant senior class, which is always good.”
There are 29 players on varsity, 25 on JV.
“Those are good numbers for a school our size,” Thorington said. “But our participation numbers in general are pretty big. This year we added a JV soccer team, which, as far as I know, is the first time that’s happened here.”
Kalkaska coaches also participated this summer in a training program through Michigan State called Spartan Performance. The program, according to the school’s website, is designed to enhance athletic development and sports performance through a multidisciplinary approach that includes physical training, recovery, nutrition, mental skills and athletic health.
Michigan State conducted a two-day in-service with the coaching staff, then came back for a follow-up.
“It’s collegiate-level training based on research,” Thorington said. “It’s more than just strength training, it’s speed and agility, nutrition, sports psychology. They did training with our female sports coaches on ACL strength and tear prevention. We’re hitting all the facets.
“Our football staff really spearheaded it and ran with it. We only had a couple weeks to implement it, but this offseason we’ll have the entire year to do it. We’re always thinking of ways to get a competitive advantage.”
That said, Thorington added that wins and losses are not the only way to gauge success.
“Our slogan for this year (in the athletic department) is ‘Embrace the Process,’” he said. “We’re not going to concentrate on the results, the wins and losses. That’s not why we’re here. Instead of worrying about championships, we’re going to worry about developing champions.”
One can lead to the other, though, and that’s what the Blazers are hoping.
And as Thorington alluded, it all starts at the top with Wilkinson, who is all about team.
That was evident over the weekend when he first saw his Hall of Fame plaque that listed his individual accomplishments.
“It took a lot of people to make it happen – teammates, coaches, family, friends,” he said. “I didn’t do all the work myself. It’s (induction) an individual honor, but it doesn’t take into account that I had the MIFC Player of the Year at quarterback (Matt Hoard) in 1996. We also had the Defensive Player of the Year (Jovan Dewitt). A lot of people played a huge role in this.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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) Kalkaska junior Nolan Mitchell (5) looks for a hole against Elk Rapids this season, with Luke Sexton blocking. (Middle) Kalkaska football coach Jeremy Wilkinson. (Below) Senior quarterback Hunter Suydam rolls left looking for a receiver against Leroy Pine River. (Photos by Greg Fast.)
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.)