Line Does Lifting, Muskegon Makes Run

October 5, 2015

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Muskegon High School’s varsity, junior varsity and freshmen football teams all practice on tiny, land-locked Wilson Field, adjacent to Hackley Stadium, the same practice field where thousands of Big Reds have learned the game for more than 100 years.

Junior quarterback Kalil Pimpleton and his stable of athletic receivers and defensive backs are using 90 percent of the available space at a recent practice, running a series of post, flag and go routes under the watchful eyes of head coach Shane Fairfield and offensive coordinator Brent White – along with a group of young, future Big Reds peering wide-eyed at their heroes through the barbed-wire fence.

Meanwhile, sequestered in a muddy corner, are the guys who do all the dirty work.

“We know this is where it all starts,” said Muskegon senior guard and defensive tackle Derices Brown (6-foot-1, 280 pounds), a three-year starter and the team’s only interior player who starts both ways. “If we make the blocks, we can make the backs look good.”

Brown anchors the senior-led right side of the Muskegon attack – along with tackle Juanye Johnson (6-3, 279) and slot back Khari Wilcox-Lewis (6-0, 230) – which excels at straight-ahead drive blocking when fullback Jared Pittman needs the tough yards and for sealing the edge on sweeps for senior slot PP Copeland and Pimpleton.

Muskegon (5-1) is averaging 46 points in its last five games and more than 300 rushing yards per game behind its dominating front five, which has been a constant in the Big Reds’ six trips to MHSAA championship games over the past 11 years.

The leader of the group up front is Matt Bolles, an all-state tackle at Muskegon Catholic Central who went on to play at Eastern Michigan University and brings a warrior’s mentality to his job as the offensive line coach.

“We have established a physical mindset throughout the whole program, but especially on the offensive line,” Bolles said. “If we can run our veer between the tackles, it sets everything else up.”

An amazing run

While many urban football programs have struggled to even field a team in recent years, Muskegon has thrived.

In fact, an argument could be made that the past decade has been the best in school history – which is saying something, considering Muskegon has won more than 800 football games, dating back to 1895.

Muskegon won Division 2 championships in 2004, 2006 and 2008 under Tony Annese, who moved on to Grand Rapids Community College and now coaches Ferris State, which is currently 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation in Division II.

Matt Koziak coached the Big Reds for one year in 2009, finishing 7-4, before stepping down. Koziak is now the head coach at cross-town rival Mona Shores.

Enter Shane Fairfield, who actually started coaching at Muskegon in 1998 under Dave Taylor, one year before Annese arrived. Fairfield gained head coaching experience for five years at nearby Holton before returning to Muskegon as defensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009, then took over from Koziak as head coach in 2010.

Fairfield’s teams have made the playoffs in each of his first five years as head coach, but the past three teams have displayed the physical and mental toughness to take it all the way to Ford Field, marred only by disappointing finishes – losses to Birmingham Brother Rice in Division 2 Finals in 2012 and 2013 and a loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in last year’s Division 3 title game.

This fall, the offensive front is playing inspired, with a singular goal of an MHSAA championship.

“We want to keep getting better, keep getting stronger and be at our best on Week 14,” said Johnson.

Brown and Johnson are both all-state candidates on the right side of the Muskegon line, while considered among the top guards and tackles, respectively, in the entire state and getting attention from both Division I and Division II college programs.

In addition to the strong right side, the other starters up front are junior center Devin Sanders (6-0, 225), senior left guard Dylan Oplinger (6-1, 258) or Corion Ross (6-3, 255) and sophomore left tackle Antwan Reed Jr. (6-7, 286) – a physical specimen who already has been offered a scholarship by University of Tennessee and is considered among the state’s top line prospects in the 2018 class.

Commitment to the weight room

There was a time when Muskegon struggled to match the strength and physicality of teams like Rockford and Lowell, with those games often coming down to whether Muskegon could spring enough big plays to withstand a physical pounding.

But Muskegon’s new emphasis on year-round weight training has changed that dynamic.

“I always tell the kids that if I was an employer and wanted to hire someone, I would go into the weight room in the summer and see who’s in there,” Fairfield said. “Anyone can get fired up on Friday night, but you get bigger, faster, stronger and healthier by spending time in the weight room year-round.”

Muskegon looks at its weight training in three stages – heavy power lifting from the time the season ends through the spring, higher-intensity cross-training and flexibility training in the summer and four days a week of lifting during the season, a phase which not every team employs once the season begins.

“We want to stay strong during the season,” Fairfield explained.

Muskegon’s emphasis on strength training is not only paying dividends on the field, but it’s also helping its players move up to the next level.

Terrance Taylor (Michigan) and Carlin Landingham (Ferris State), who is now on the Big Reds’ coaching staff, are a couple of the players who have gone on to college success, but the rate of placing linemen on college rosters has ratcheted up in recent years.

For example, four of the five starters on Muskegon’s 2012 offensive line are now playing college football – Antwan Billings at Saginaw Valley State, Quincy Crosby at Kalamazoo College, Chandar Ricks at Northwood and Malik King at Ball State.

This year’s group could go on to similar college success, thanks in no small part to Muskegon’s strength training emphasis. Sanders, the starting center, is the small guy at 225 pounds (“our little runt,” as Bolles calls him), but the other five regulars are all at least 255 pounds.

“We don't just try to use our kids for wins at Muskegon,” said Bolles. “Our goal is to make our kids responsible, caring, hard-working and loyal men.”

Quest for perfection

At most high schools, guiding the football team to an MHSAA championship game three consecutive years would lead to the building of a statue in the coach’s honor at the stadium entrance. At Muskegon High, losing that title game has a small faction of fans pushing for a new varsity football coach.

Fairfield knows such expectations come with the territory at Muskegon, which boasts 17 MHSAA championships and doesn’t post runner-up finishes on the sign perched high above the Hackley Stadium press box.

But nobody takes those rare losses harder than Fairfield, which was evident in his postgame television interview last month after Muskegon defeated previously unbeaten Grandville for the 800th win in school history.

“It’s great to get our 800th win, but I wish it was 801,” Fairfield said. “That dang loss (in the opener at Detroit Catholic Central) still bothers me.”

Muskegon lost two games last season – both of which gnaw at Fairfield and his coaching staff, and seniors like Brown and Johnson, on a daily basis. The Big Reds get a chance to avenge those losses in the upcoming weeks.

The first goal for the Big Reds is to win the battle of Muskegon. The Big Reds host Reeths-Puffer this Friday on Senior Night, before the much-anticipated showdown at unbeaten Mona Shores on Oct. 16.

Shores beat Muskegon for the first time in 33 years, last fall, breaking open a 20-20 game at halftime behind the running of Tyree Jackson for a 48-27 victory

The second goal is to win the battle of Michigan. Muskegon, which is experiencing enrollment declines in recent years, will likely end up in Division 3 again this fall, where rivals such as Zeeland West, Lowell and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s could be looming once again.

“We have more desire than ever to win it all,” said Brown. “The only way we’re going to do that is by getting better and getting stronger every day.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at kendra.tom@gmail.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon's offensive line lines up for work with historic Hackley Stadium's home bleachers and press box in the background during the Big Reds' 800th win on Sept. 11 over visiting Grandville. (Middle) Muskegon junior quarterback Kalil Pimpleton strides into the end zone through a big hole created by pancake blocks from senior guard Derices Brown (No. 57), senior tackle Juanye Johnson (center) and senior guard Dylan Oplinger (right). (Below) The Hackley Stadium crowd looks on, along with members of the Muskegon football coaching staff, from left: offensive line coach Matt Bolles, offensive coordinator Brent White, receivers coach Tracy Lewis and head coach Shane Fairfield. (Photos courtesy of Tim Reilly.)

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.)