Leader Re-Energizes Past Power Stevenson

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 22, 2019

Regardless of how one looks at it, Justin Newcomb is the right person for the right job at the right time.

Newcomb, 33, is one of the youngest head football coaches in the Detroit area, and he’s causing a stir. He’s in his second season at Sterling Heights Stevenson and the person most responsible for the Titans playing in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal on Saturday for the first time in a decade.

Stevenson (8-4), as an additional playoff qualifier, has played the underdog role to a T throughout the playoffs. There’s an advantage to that role, and Stevenson will take it up again when it takes on Davison (10-2) at Troy Athens at 1 p.m.

Once a football power, Stevenson fell back to the middle of the pack in the highly competitive Macomb Area Conference Red from 2010-18. Four times previously the program had reached an MHSAA Final, the last in 2009 when the Titans lost to Detroit Catholic Central, 31-21, in the Division 1 title game.

That was Hall of Fame coach Rick Bye’s 35th and final season at Stevenson. Since then, the Titans qualified for the playoffs three times and didn’t win a playoff game. That is, until this season.

“You’ve got goals,” Newcomb said. “You set goals at the start (of the season), and you just want to get the most out of (your) team.”

When Newcomb took over, the program had won just three games over the previous two seasons. The Titans were 4-5 overall in 2018, and just 1-4 in the MAC Red, which was won by eventual Division 1 champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. The average margin of defeat in those four league losses was 25.5 points.

“We took our lumps (in the MAC Red),” Newcomb said. “The challenge was getting kids to come out. When we first came in there was some interest lost. We had to beg some to come out. Now that we’re winning, kids are saying they want to come out.”

Despite his young age, Newcomb has coached high school football for 14 seasons. He started as an assistant under Mike Powell at Warren Cousino in 2006 when Newcomb was a student at Wayne State University. For 10 seasons he was the head varsity baseball coach at Cousino, but he gave that up when he took over for Powell as Cousino’s head football coach in 2017.  

Though Newcomb finds himself in the right position at Stevenson, don’t view Stevenson’s sudden success as luck. Newcomb possesses an insatiable appetite for knowledge. If there’s a clinic to attend, you’ll likely find Newcomb there. And his ego doesn’t prevent him from talking to more experienced coaches to pry loose valuable information. Most often you’ll find Bye on the Stevenson sideline, not as an assistant but someone there whom Newcomb can confide in.

“Justin is positive and energetic,” Bye said. “He’s definitely not a guy who thinks he knows it all. He’s bought into everything, the Stevenson history, everything. He’s up on technology, much more so than I ever was. And he doesn’t let little things bother him. His practices have a tempo, and there’s little time wasted.”

Not lost in Newcomb’s system is his military background. After graduating from Wayne State with a teaching degree, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2011. He continues to serve today in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

“It has a lot to do with the way we coach,” Newcomb said of his military experience. “(Coaching) is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. There’s (teaching) leadership roles and being responsible. In our culture, it’s all about winning. It’s all about playing time. The kids get caught up in that.

“Their attitudes have changed. We had to address the group as a whole. We had guys that first year that said that they play linebacker, and that’s it. Others came in saying they just play one way. That’s not how we do it. You’re here to help the team. Now the kids are doing whatever we need them to.”

A prime example is junior Giovanni El-Hadi. A college prospect (committed to University of Michigan), El-Hadi had been told, by some outside of the program, that he was an offensive lineman and wouldn’t play defense. This season El-Hadi is starting on defense for the first time and said earlier this fall that his time spent on the defensive side has helped improve his speed.

Another two-way starter on the line is senior Sal Madonna. Madonna is a two-year starter, and he and his brother, sophomore Biagio Madonna, are the sons of assistant coach Carmine Madonna – who played for Bye during the late 1990s.

“For me, I’ve been a part of Stevenson football for a long time,” Sal Madonna said. “Last year’s team wasn’t as connected as much. This year we bonded together. We trusted Coach Newcomb’s style. Even last year as juniors (we knew) to be successful, we had to buy in. We didn’t have the same mindset last year. We’re playing with a lot more confidence now.

“This means a lot to me. I remember being in the stands (at Troy Athens) when Jason Fracassa threw a touchdown pass in the (2009) Semifinals. Just like this team, that team never gave up.”

This team rebounded from a 2-3 start with a 13-7 comeback victory over Utica in Week 6. That game, more than others, was the turning point of the Titans’ season. Newcomb made a switch at quarterback, moving Biagio Madonna from linebacker and switching fellow sophomore Jordan Ramsey from quarterback to slot receiver and running back. With Ramsey, Newcomb was running a zone read offense. With Madonna, Stevenson is running an option attack.

In the victory over Utica, Stevenson used a trick play to score the winning touchdown. Last week in the 9-7 Regional Final victory over Detroit Cass Tech, the Titans had a goal-line stand in the first half and scored the winning touchdown on a double pass. Madonna threw to Dylan Kleinedler, who threw to Ramsey for a touchdown early in the second half. A Ramsey interception ended the game with 14 seconds left.

The previous week against Macomb Dakota, Newcomb decided not to go for the tying field goal from 40 yards out, and instead called on Madonna to throw the winning touchdown pass to Ramsey with a minute to play. Stevenson won 38-35 against a team it had lost to, 40-14, during the regular season and before Newcomb had made the quarterback switch.

“We’ve been fortunate the last few weeks with trick plays,” Newcomb said. “(But) getting here is a testament on just how hard these kids have worked.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at tmarkowski@statechampsnetwork.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sterling Heights Stevenson players hoist their Division 1 Regional championship trophy after defeating Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Middle) Jordan Ramsey (5) breaks into the open against the Technicians. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson football program.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

December 14, 2022

LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.

Southwest Corridor“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.

John GuilleanGuillean 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.”

Great anticipation

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.

Derek GriblerGribler 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 ShebestPam 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 pamkzoo@aol.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.)