Kearsley Welcomes Dawn of Exciting Era
By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com
October 9, 2019
Austin Lewis remembers going to Flint Kearsley football games as a kid and the excitement in the crowd. He also remembers that excitement being short-lived.
“It was fun and upbeat during the first half,” said Lewis, now a senior linebacker and tight end at Kearsley. “But toward the end, people were leaving because we weren’t winning.”
These days, people aren’t leaving, as the Hornets have given their fans more to cheer about than they’ve enjoyed in a long time.
With its 27-7 win against Holly this past Friday, Kearsley improved to 5-1, ensuring its first winning season since 2003. One more win, and the Hornets will clinch their first playoff berth since 1998.
“It just feels great,” junior running back and defensive tackle Isaiah Stiverson said. “We’ve all been together since middle school, and everyone in the community, they knew our group would be the one to change it and turn it around. It just feels good.”
Many of the juniors and seniors on this season’s team combined to go unbeaten as a junior varsity team in 2017. The juniors also were undefeated in middle school.
This group came together at the same time new coach Kaleb Forr arrived at Kearsley. A Davison native who had previously coached at Holland Christian, Forr brought with him new schemes, including a more wide-open offense. Now that he’s in Year 3, he’s also provided the program with consistency.
“I think the thing that Kearsley had struggled with even before I got there, it seemed like every couple years a new coach would come through,” Forr said. “It’s tough to kind of build on that. They gave me a shot when I was young – I was 26 when I got the job. They wanted to try to hire somebody that could be around for a while and try to build something consistent. That’s what has been great – the kids, the whole community, the staff, the administration has really bought into the mindset we’ve tried to bring in.”
One of Forr’s greatest challenges early ended up a blessing in disguise. He was hired in June of 2017, which didn’t give him much time to put together a staff for the upcoming season. But Madison Heights Lamphere coach Jeff Glynn, who Forr did not know at the time, reached out to congratulate him and gave him some advice.
“I told him it’s been a struggle trying to find guys that know what we’re trying to do and know the system,” Forr said. “He suggested something since we had six coaches on the varsity staff and couldn’t put together a JV staff – to have the varsity staff coach the varsity and JV that year. That’s actually the group of kids we have right now.”
While that was a lot of work, it allowed Forr to get acquainted with all the players in his program right away. It also allowed them to get acquainted with him.
“It was big,” junior quarterback Braylon Silvas said. “We were new to our offense – we went from a wing offense to a spread. Practicing with the varsity showed me what I needed to do. It helped me pick up on the speed of the game and how I needed to prepare.”
In 2018, many of those JV players moved up to the varsity level, and while they were 3-6, Forr said he could see signs of things moving in the right direction. The numbers agreed with him, as the Hornets were outscored by a total of 17 points on the season despite the six losses.
“Last year was definitely a year where we saw some things that made us think, ‘Man, we could be pretty good,’” Forr said. “A few plays where things didn’t go our way, and that’s what determines the outcome. We were competitive against teams in our league that we haven’t been in the past.”
Players and coaches alike say this year’s team put in the necessary work in the offseason to capitalize on the talent and momentum of the program. But there’s more to the success than that.
“I really think the key is that we’re acting more as a family,” Silvas said. “We really came together this year, and we’re doing really great things. Everybody has bought in. The family – everybody emphasizes that.”
With everyone in the locker room bought in, players knew they needed to get everyone in the community to buy in, as well. Through six games, it appears that has happened.
“It’s different, because at Kearsley, we haven’t had a winning season in a while,” Lewis said. “It feels good to have the community finally on our side, to have people finally believe in us, and to show people what we’re capable of.”
A main goal for this year’s team was to gain respect for the program. The five wins are a nice start, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Hornets play a Linden team in Week 7 that is tougher than its 2-4 record would indicate. The Eagles haven’t lost a game by more than eight points, and that includes defeats against Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, Goodrich and Fenton – teams with a combined three losses between them.
A Flint Metro League crossover game against a yet-to-be-determined opponent awaits in Week 8, while Royal Oak is the Week 9 opponent. The focus for now is clearly on Linden, but a single win from the final three games would qualify Kearsley for the postseason. Players couldn’t hold back their excitement at the thought of ending a 21-year playoff drought.
“It would just mean so much,” Lewis said. “Honestly, to me, it would set like a milestone. It was something I wanted to do since I started playing for Kearsley.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sunlight reflects off a Flint Kearsley team huddle early this season. (Middle) The Hornets defense lines up to stop Bay City Western during a 41-21 opening-night win. (Photos courtesy of the Kearsley football program.)
For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times
By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com
March 17, 2023
Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.
Last 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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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 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 email@example.com 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.)