New Football Coaches Rise for PCCP Schools

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

August 30, 2018

CANTON – Athletically, the Plymouth-Canton Community School system is like no other.

Canton, Plymouth and Salem are the three high schools and all equally share student-athletes, who are randomly assigned to one of the three high schools in seventh grade.

This football season there is an added twist for the football players. All three schools have new varsity head coaches.

Former assistant Andy Lafata has taken over at Canton, while Brian Lewis has taken over Plymouth after leading Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard last season and Justin Reed brings championship experience to Salem after most recently assisting at Warren DeLaSalle and then Livonia Clarenceville.

“We’re finding out as coaches that the seniors don’t care that there is a new coach,” Lafata said. “There are goals that are attainable. They have high expectations. They don’t care who’s coaching. They want results.

“Plymouth (as a school district) has high expectations. It doesn’t matter (who the head coach is). What you learn is the kids are still the same. And we owe it to them to be the best coaches we can be.”

Two started 1-0 last week, Plymouth downing Livonia Stevenson 35-11 and Salem defeating Wayne Memorial 23-14. Canton opened with a 35-21 loss to Livonia Churchill.

Athletes’ expectations may be the same at all three schools, but as noted, the district is unique. Without being specific to the point of confusing, here’s the nutshell on how PCCS students are assigned to a high school:

As noted above, students entering seventh grade in the district are assigned at random, by computer, to one of the three high schools. It doesn’t matter where they want to study or whether they want to play football at Canton or softball at Plymouth or soccer at Salem. A student’s name is in the computer, and the selection process plays no favorites. If a student transfers into the school system, that student also has a 33 percent chance of attending any of the three schools.

Individual classes, however, can be a mix of students from all of them. It’s common for a student at Plymouth to have algebra classmates from Canton or Salem. You could have a student sitting next to you, and on Friday that same student could be doing his or her best to tackle you in the open field. All three high schools are located on the same campus, so classrooms are equally accessible to students from all three.

Still with me? In addition there is just one marching band that represents all three schools – and the only time it plays during a football game is during homecoming for each.

Back to football. Of the three programs, the players at Canton might appear to have the easier time adjusting to the new coach. Lafata is a 2005 graduate of Canton and spent the last 10 seasons as an assistant coach under Tim Baechler, who retired as head coach following last season's 10-2 finish. Lafata was the starting center on the 2005 team that, with Baechler at the helm, reached the school’s only MHSAA Final – losing to Rockford, 31-21, in Division 1. 

Reed, Salem’s new coach, is leading a program for the first time. His previous coaching experience, seven years in all, was split as an assistant between four schools – Royal Oak, Sterling Heights Stevenson and Warren DeLaSalle and, most recently, at Livonia Clarenceville in 2017. The Rocks finished 5-5 last season. 

At 29, Plymouth’s Lewis is the youngest of the trio, but he does have experience as a head coach after leading Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard in 2017. Plymouth is coming off a 4-5 season, and his Gabriel Richard team was 7-3.

Lafata, 30, also benefitted by being hired in February. Reed was hired in early June, Lewis a few weeks later.

“To tell you the truth, having three schools on campus is unusual,” Lewis said. “We just focus on ourselves. The other things that happened (in the district) doesn’t affect us. The challenge for me, (Plymouth) is bigger than Richard. The bigger challenge is, I’m an east-sider. I have to learn the different nuances of how they run things here. It’s a work in progress. I have great administrative support. I’m hitting the ground running.”

Lewis was wise to surround himself with coaches who have experience at the high school and college levels. One important hire was his father Mike Lewis, a longtime defensive coordinator at DeLaSalle and Detroit Catholic Central, Mike’s alma mater. Lewis also lured Mike Mach away from Catholic Central where his father, the legendary Tom Mach, coached for 41 seasons. Cory Zirbel, a former University of Michigan offensive lineman, is also on the staff. Zirbel coached with Rich Rodriguez at Arizona.

Lewis played football at DeLaSalle and then cut his coaching teeth at his alma mater, Michigan, as an offensive analysist – or what Lewis termed as a sort of graduate assistant, from 2012-14. When Brady Hoke was fired as U-M’s head coach, Lewis decided to place his family (he has a wife, Teddi, and a 1-year-old child, Evelyn) above a potential college coaching career as he pursued teaching and coaching at the high school level instead.

Reed, 34, spent his first three seasons as an assistant at Royal Oak before going to DeLaSalle under Paul Verska, and he helped the veteran coach win the Division 2 title in 2015. He’s been working toward this kind of opportunity.

“To have your own program, for the first time, the hardest thing is to convince the community that it’ll work,” he said. “For Andy it’s different. It’s a carryover.

“It’s a positive atmosphere here. They’re craving for success. We’re adding kids all the time. I got my 35th player (on varsity) the day after our first scrimmage. We have a freshmen team, too. They didn’t have one last year. It’s invaluable. It was a lot of work. I was kind of like a salesman.

“It’s an exciting time. For all three of us.”

Lafata, by all accounts, was the right person at the right time to replace Baechler. The retired coach had built the program into not only one of the best in the Detroit area, but one that competed well throughout the state. Since 1999, Canton has made the playoffs every season but one. The Chiefs came within one play of reaching the Finals a second time but lost to Detroit Cass Tech in a 2015 Semifinal, 48-41.

“Last year we knew every week was a special week,” Lafata said. “We all knew Tim would leave once his son (Lou, a linebacker) graduated. It was like being a senior when you knew this would be the last year that this group would be together.”

Lafata also is the offensive coordinator, a position he held under Baechler. Don’t look for Lafata to change the way Canton plays, especially on that side of the ball. The Chiefs will continue to run the full-house, T-formation with double tight ends and on occasion slip a receiver out wide with one of the three backs on a wing.

“Canton stays Canton,” he said. “We coach what we know.

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously 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 with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clockwise from left: Salem coach Justin Reed, Canton coach Andy Lafata and Plymouth coach Brian Lewis. (Middle) Lafata stands for the national anthem with his players. (Below) Salem players celebrate last week during a win over Wayne Memorial. (Photos submitted by respective athletic departments.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)