By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – The challenge came one more time over text Thursday night, from a pair of assistant coaches who had something their players desperately wanted.
Tony Panici and Tyler Aldridge were part of Jackson Lumen Christi’s repeat Division 5 champions in 2003 and 2004, and they had one question for today’s Titans: “Do you have what it takes to join the back-to-back club?”
“That really stuck with us,” Lumen Christi junior linebacker Nick Thomas said. “And I think it gave us that little edge to be able to come out and leave everything on the field, and just join that club.”
Panici and Aldridge – who also were part of the 2005 runner-up team – sent along photos of their championship rings as well. And now the program will need to mint another 80 or so more.
Indeed the Titans won their 10th championship Friday at Ford Field, for the second straight season in Division 6, completing their first repeat since Panici and Aldridge’s sophomore and junior years more than a decade ago. And Lumen Christi did it by holding off arguably the state’s most successful program of the last decade – five-time champion Ithaca – by holding on for a 40-34 win.
The Titans led by 20 midway through the fourth quarter before the Yellowjackets pulled to within six with 2:27 to play. Lumen Christi (12-1) was able to run off those final minutes but needed every last yard – securing the victory by getting two on a 4-and-1 dive by senior Kyle Minder with under a minute to play.
It was a symbolic way to end the final rally. The Yellowjackets (12-1) have won their five titles over the last eight seasons with offenses led by dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, and made this run led by senior signal-caller Joey Bentley – who ended the fall with 2,144 yards and 31 touchdowns passing and 1,656 yards and 27 scores rushing.
Lumen Christi’s attack is far more old school, a grind-it-out style that this season headlined senior Sebastion Toland with Minder mostly blocking in front of him and behind a powerful offensive line. The Titans didn’t throw a pass during the second half Friday, aside from a two-point conversion try, mostly because they were able to follow up Ithaca’s defensive stops with long runs – Minder ripped off scoring sprints of four, 43 and 63 yards over the final two quarters, and Toland had an 80-yarder to make the lead 19 points just more than a minute into the fourth.
“The offensive line really came off the ball in the second half,” said longtime Lumen Christi coach Herb Brogan, who finished his 38th season running the program. “We felt all year long that offensive line was the strength of our team, and we’ve got some pretty good people to run behind them. I really thought they asserted themselves in the second half and took control of the line of scrimmage.”
The Titans ran for 514 yards on 67 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. The carries were the second most by one team in an MHSAA championship game.
Toland finished with 244 yards on 33 carries, and Minder had 206 on 23 attempts. Both made the MHSAA record book list for rushing yards in a Final, Toland’s total tying for seventh highest. He had 176 of those yards during the second half. Thomas also scored his team’s first touchdown on a 72-yard reverse.
“They’re a fantastic team offensively, and we knew that. Our challenge was getting off the field,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said.
“Our defense is fast, but obviously we’re not very big. They asked me at halftime on TV what (Lumen’s) adjustment was going to be. And I said I expected a lot more power running game from them in the second half, and unfortunately that’s exactly what we got.”
A 51-yard touchdown run by Bentley gave Ithaca a 13-8 lead it carried into halftime. Lumen Christi swung the score 24 points to take a 31-12 advantage into the fourth quarter, but the Yellowjackets remained dangerous. Three of Bentley’s four touchdown passes came over the final 9:36.
He finished 11 of 21 passing for 240 yards and those four scores, and ran for 89 yards and one touchdown. Senior Adam Culp caught five passes for 70 yards and two of those scores.
“I’m glad the clock ran out when it did,” said Brogan, also the fifth winningest coach in MHSAA history with a 343-83 record. “They’re really explosive.”
Senior linebacker Ethan McCormick led Ithaca with 15 tackles, while senior nose guard Nathan Bellinger had 11 and senior linebacker Zach Hessbrook had 10.
The Yellowjackets have won 118 of their last 123 games.
“All I can say is this: When you coach a team, all you ask from them is that they play as hard as they can possibly play,” Terry Hessbrook said. “My kids do that. They do that for me, for my coaching staff.
“I told those guys at halftime, Jackson Lumen Christi has never a team like Ithaca High School, because we have no quitters. These kids, I’m so proud of them for it.”
Minder and Thomas both had six tackles to pace the Titans.
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lumen Christi’s Sebastion Toland works to break away from a tackler during the Titans’ Division 6 Final win Friday. (Middle) From left: Cameron White, Joe Barrett, Luke Stanton and Hunter Richmond celebrate with the championship trophy.
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.)