By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
ALGONAC — Algonac has been home for A.J. Garshott since he was 5 years old.
Yet, it's like he's living in an entirely new town this fall.
"I honestly have never seen Algonac like this in my entire life," the Muskrats' senior quarterback said. "It's completely different. You drive through town and every sign has stuff about our football team on it. There's signs in every yard. The fan base is unreal, how many people come to our games now. Last year, there'd be half the bleachers full. Now it's only standing room."
Football can have that impact on a small community.
"It's been overwhelming, to be quite honest, with the number of people who have gotten together, maybe because of the football team," Algonac coach Scott Barnhart said. "But they've renewed their enthusiasm for the community. The atmosphere around here is electric. Every business in town has 'Go Muskrats' up on their sign. I've been introduced to people who have come out and watched the team play who haven't been to a game in years. That's a great feeling for our kids and their parents. The people out there come away with a good feeling about the education their kids are getting here in town. It all feeds on itself."
The heightened sense of pride in this town which sits along the St. Clair River across from Canada stems from one of the most remarkable turnarounds experienced by any football program in the state.
Algonac is one of 38 teams during the 41-year MHSAA playoff era to win at least eight regular-season games one year after losing at least eight games. Hesperia also had a remarkable turnaround this season, going from 1-8 to 9-0. (See all 38 teams below.)
The 2014 season was all too typical for Algonac, as the Muskrats stumbled to a 1-8 record. It was the 19th time in the last 22 years that Algonac had a losing record, the only exceptions being a three-year run from 2004-06 in which the school had its only two playoff appearances and went 19-10.
It took only one night to let Algonac and the entire Port Huron area know that these were not your father's or your big brother's Muskrats.
Algonac opened the season with a 19-18 victory over Marine City, taking the lead with 36 seconds left on a 19-yard pass from Garshott to Luke Stephenson and sealing the deal with Joe McKee's second interception of the game.
Marine City was a huge hurdle for the Muskrats to clear. Algonac had lost 15 straight times to the Mariners, last winning 12-0 in 1986. Marine City, the 2013 MHSAA Division 4 champion, would bounce back to qualify for the playoffs for the 18th straight year.
"That was a huge confidence booster," Garshott said. "They've been the best team in the area. Coming out, they were thinking we were the old Algonac and we came out on top. It was a really cool feeling, especially to throw a touchdown with (36) seconds left."
"It was huge to come out in Week 1 and compete with a team as good as Marine City," senior defensive end Mason Ruhlman said. "We not only compete with them, but beat them. It was an unreal feeling."
For the Muskrats, the victory was an affirmation that all of their hard work in the offseason would pay off.
"We definitely saw improvements over the summer," Ruhlman said. "Guys were working out. The numbers were a lot better. We actually had guys showing up. In the weight room, we had 25 guys coming, compared to last year we had seven or eight guys."
Beating Marine City would've been the highlight of the season for past Algonac teams, but the Muskrats had much more in store for their fans as the season unfolded.
With consecutive shutouts over Imlay City, Armada and Yale in Weeks 3-5, the Muskrats had three straight shutouts for the first time since opening 1968 with three in a row. Algonac hadn't posted back-to-back shutouts since 1991.
Following a 28-0 shutout over Yale, the competition got tougher over the next three weeks. Algonac was down 21-7 in the second quarter against Croswell-Lexington, an eventual playoff qualifier, before scoring the final four touchdowns in a 33-21 victory. The following week, the Muskrats fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter against another playoff qualifier, Almont, before shutting out the Raiders the rest of the way in a 21-7 victory.
Algonac went into Week 8 with a perfect season and outright Blue Water Area Conference title on the line, but lost 15-14 to a Richmond team that finished the regular season with an 8-1 record. Richmond took a 15-14 lead on a 92-yard kickoff return by D'Sean Hamilton before halftime. The teams played a scoreless second half, with Algonac's fourth turnover of the game ending a promising drive late in the fourth quarter.
"It was just terrible," Ruhlman said. "We worked so hard, then it came down to the wire and we just didn't come out on top. We battled and showed a lot of good things in that game as a team. We had a lot of guys battle through some stuff. There were positive notes in that game."
By beating Brown City, 50-27, last Friday, the Muskrats had eight regular-season victories for the first time since the 1972 team went 8-0. Algonac was 8-3 in 2004, winning a playoff game against New Haven.
The Muskrats will open the MHSAA Division 5 playoffs at home at 7 p.m. Friday against Clinton Township Clintondale. If Algonac wins, it will have a rematch with Marine City or Almont in the district final.
The Muskrats have been looking forward to the playoff atmosphere since clinching a berth with three regular-season games remaining.
"It's been 10 years since they've been in the playoffs, and we won our first league title since 1972," Barnhart said. "We stopped to smell the roses briefly and talked to the kids about that. They and their parents all have questions about the playoffs and how this business works with points and matchups. We took a little bit of time to talk through that with people. Then we had to stop and get business taken care of."
How did a team that finished so badly a year ago become so dominant this season?
First off, there were some extenuating circumstances that contributed heavily to that 1-8 record in 2014.
The Muskrats started eight sophomores last season. They lost their leading receiver, rusher and tackler to lengthy injuries. One key player from this year's team was ineligible last year, while another who "was making some poor decisions" has turned things around to be a key part of this year's success. Garshott got a year of experience as a starting quarterback as a junior.
"You tally all of those things together and we were not as bad a team last year," Barnhart said. "The leadership this year has been phenomenal. I do think that has made a huge difference.
"The kids have been very confident in what they've done to prepare. I don't mean it to sound like an arrogant statement, even though it kinda does, but if you ask any coach going into a season, there's great enthusiasm and excitement of the unknown. If you do it right, I don't think it should surprise you very much."
Algonac has outscored opponents 321-95, breaking the school scoring record of 300 points set in 11 games by the 2004 team. The average of 10.6 points allowed is Algonac's lowest since the 1972 unbeaten team allowed 6.4 points per game.
Garshott is 68 for 135 passing for 1,175 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has run for eight touchdowns. His leading receiver is senior Owen Kaatz, who has 25 catches for 526 yards and five touchdowns.
Junior Joe McKee has run 79 times for 406 yards and seven touchdowns, to go with 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.
The defense has not only shut down opponents, but has scored four touchdowns and a safety. Ruhlman has returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
Sophomore middle linebacker Luke Stephenson has a team-high 65 tackles. More impressively, he is one of the team's four captains along with seniors Ruhlman, Garshott and linebacker Tom Goldenbogen.
"I've never had a sophomore captain before and don't think I ever will," Barnhart said. "He's got all the intangibles. It's attitude, discipline, work ethic, all of those things you want your captains to have. We've had seniors with all of those things that just don't have their teammates respond to them. It's an intangible thing to see how kids respond to some of the would-be leaders on your team."
Goldenbogen has 61 tackles. Sophomore Nick Folkerts has three interceptions.
"It was rough last year," Ruhlman said. "We didn't really have anything to look forward to. It was still awesome to be playing football, but it's completely different this year knowing we're going to the playoffs."
Teams winning at least eight regular-season games the year after losing at least eight games during playoff era (since 1975):
Grand Rapids Union, 1974-75, 1-8 to 9-0 (missed playoffs)
Richland Gull Lake, 1974-75, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Essexville-Garber, 1976-77, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Cheboygan Catholic, 1977-78, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Woodhaven, 1977-78, 0-9 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
St. Joseph, 1979-80, 1-8 to 9-0 (9-1 including playoffs)
Chelsea, 1980-81, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Kalkaska, 1980-81, 0-8 to 9-0 (missed playoffs)
Schoolcraft, 1981-82, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Morenci, 1985-86, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Dansville, 1988-89, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Richland Gull Lake, 1988-89, 1-8 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Waterford Kettering, 1993-94, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Galesburg-Augusta, 1994-95, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Pellston, 1994-95, 0-8-1 to 8-1 (missed playoffs)
Ortonville Brandon, 1995-96, 1-8 to 9-0 (9-1 including playoffs)
St. Ignace, 1995-96, 1-8 to 8-1 (10-2 including playoffs)
Chesaning, 1996-97, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Ypsilanti, 1996-97, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Hale, 1998-99, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Birch Run, 1999-2000, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Farmington, 2001-02, 0-9 to 8-1 (10-2 including playoffs)
Leroy-Pine River, 2003-04, 0-9 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Southfield, 2003-04, 1-8 to 9-0 (9-1 including playoffs)
Dearborn Heights Robichaud, 2006-07, 0-9 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Battle Creek St. Philip, 2007-08, 1-8 to 9-0 (9-1 including playoffs)
Inkster, 2007-08, 1-8 to 8-1 (12-2 including playoffs)
Livonia Clarenceville, 2007-08, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Mason, 2007-08, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Ecorse, 2008-09, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Stockbridge, 2008-09, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Bellaire, 2009-10, 0-9 in 11-player to 9-0 in 8-player (9-1 including playoffs)
Springport, 2009-10, 1-8 to 9-0 (9-1 including playoffs)
Detroit Douglass, 2010-11, 1-8 to 8-1 (9-2 including playoffs)
Detroit University Prep, 2011-12, 1-8 to 8-1 (8-2 including playoffs)
Milan, 2011-12, 1-8 to 9-0 (10-1 including playoffs)
Algonac, 2014-15, 1-8 to 8-1 (qualified for playoffs)
Hesperia, 2014-15, 1-8 to 9-0 (qualified for playoffs)
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Algonac quarterback A.J. Garshott follows his blockers on a run during last week's win over Brown City. (Middle) Senior defensive end Mason Ruhlman (21) has returned two fumble recoveries for touchdowns this fall. (Photos courtesy of Algonac football.)
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.)