By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Muskegon Catholic Central’s players emerged from the Ford Field tunnel Friday morning for the first time, in shirts and ties and with awe over their faces.
The Crusaders as a community are used to making this trip, with 11 MHSAA Finals appearances and eight titles. But this was their first time in a championship game since 2008, before any of these players were in high school.
“We have a bunch of pictures in our weight room of all the state champions. And we always talk at the end of each year about how we want to be the next picture on the wall,” MCC junior quarterback Nick Holt said. “Especially this group of kids, we wanted to come down here and win.”
And now they’ll be remembered forever among the school's best.
The Crusaders shut down one of the highest-scoring offenses in Michigan history and moved up to sixth on the list of most MHSAA football titles in beating Beal City 35-12 in the Division 8 Final.
Beal City finished this fall with 737 points, second-most all-time. But the top-ranked Aggies (13-1) mustered only 263 yards against an MCC defense that gave up more than 16 points only once this fall – on opening night.
Meanwhile, Crusaders senior running back Alex Lewandoski ran for 218 yards, good for 15th-most in Finals history. He scored on runs of 78, 1 and 66 yards.
The team – ranked sixth at the end of the regular season – was directed by first-year coach Steve Czerwon, a player during the early 1990s and among the many on his sideline connected with MCC’s historical success.
The backfield alone included Lewandowski, whose dad played for the Crusaders, and third-generation MCC students Tommy Scott and Blake Sanford. Holt’s dad has taught at the school for 12 years.
“It’s a lot of the same families coming through, and that’s what makes it so special here – it’ the second and third generation we’re getting of (Muskegon) Catholic kids,” Czerwon said.
“I always dreamt of playing at Ford Field,” Scott added. In ’06 coming to watch that Catholic team and that Muskegon team, and in ’08 watching both teams play. To have that experience, it’s awesome.”
Beal City was experiencing Ford Field for the second straight season and with most of its standouts from 2012’s Finals loss to Harbor Beach back for one more shot at the school’s first title since 2009.
By the end of the first quarter, the Aggies had nearly evened Lewandowski’s touchdown on his team's first offensive play of the game, just missing on an extra point to trail 7-6. MCC added a second-quarter touchdown, but didn’t break things open until scoring twice during the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That allowed the defense to take a few more risks and send a few more rushers and make Beal City’s comeback attempt much tougher – especially after the Aggies' initial strategy included long possessions to drain the clock.
“You’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole right off the bat, but it puts you in a different play-calling situation when they break off those big runs,” Beal City coach Lou Rau said. “We responded, and then we gave up another big play. That definitely changes what we do and how we do it.”
Senior Hayden Huber led Beal City with 52 yards rushing and its lone touchdown on the ground. Senior quarterback Kurt Gross did complete 8 of 16 passes, but the Aggies just couldn’t get their offense clicking.
MCC's defense had is share of big plays as well. The Crusaders had three tackles for losses, two interceptions and broke up five passes. Lewandoski had a team-high nine tackles and two of those break-ups.
“They sent a lot of guys; they were on a mission,” Gross said. “A couple of times when I was passing, I knew what they were doing. But the DBs were covering well, and they shifted over well and played their zone really good. They were really disciplined; that’s the best way I could describe them.”
Although Holt didn’t complete any of his four passes, it wasn’t needed. He ran for 123 yards and a touchdown and Scott ran for 53 yards including a 21-yard score.
MCC’s last three playoff losses had come by seven points or fewer, including once to Beal City in a 2009 Semifinal and last season to Harbor Beach by five in another semi. But a number of this year’s contributors got valuable experience during that run, no doubt preparing them to finish the job.
“I think the expectations were there because this is the same group of kids that lost, and we knew we had started some sophomores and some freshman in the Semifinals last year,” Czerwon said. “Not only did we have expectations, but the kids had expectations for themselves. That being said, we were able to take that next step.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Catholic Central players hold up their first MHSAA championship trophy earned since 2008. (Middle) A trio of Crusaders tacklers wrap up Beal City running back Ty Rollin. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)