North Central Soars, Scores 1st Football Title

November 20, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GREENVILLE – The photos Powers North Central football players took Friday night after winning the first MHSAA championship trophy in program history were finishing touches on arguably the most impressive run yet during the short history of 8-player football in this state.  

Although the 8-player format is only half a decade old, it’s fair to surmise Michigan may not see an offense as potent as North Central’s for years to come – at least until the Jets take the floor this basketball season.

Sure, North Central was held to its season low in points Friday. But given the opponent and the stage, the Jets did more than enough to impress in defeating previously-undefeated Battle Creek St. Philip only 58-33 after scoring at least 64 points in every other game this fall. 

North Central (13-0) ended this season, it’s first as an 8-player program, averaging 70.4 points per game. That was only half a point less than the basketball team, featuring many of these same players, averaged in winning the Class D title in March.

“When you go into a season, you know what you have and you know what you need to work on,” said junior quarterback Jason Whitens, who also was the basketball team’s leading scorer last winter. “With the group of guys we’ve got, we all love each other, we’re close-knit just like basketball, and we love to work hard. We come out here and perform and just work hard.” 

North Central finished 13-0. Before St. Philip came within 25 points, no opponent had come closer to the Jets than 48. 

A few key decisions gave them the momentum for such a dominating run.

First came the decision to move to 8-player. North Central had had recent success in 11-player, making the playoffs three of the last five seasons and finishing 8-3 in 2013. But enrollment dropping to 119 students this fall justified the move.

Then came another switch. Whitens, a receiver last season, moved to quarterback to take over for his graduated cousin Rob Granquist after formerly serving as one of Granquist’s top targets. 

Whitens threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns Friday, giving him 2,532 yards and 45 touchdown passes without an interception this fall. It’s a good argument, which was more incredible – the zero interceptions or that 25 percent of his 179 passes went for scores. 

His development was quickened by work with cousin Granquist, but also by another sharp decision by coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who decided to keep the same offense as when the team was 11-player but drop the tackles and a slot receiver.

Still, St. Philip nearly wrote its own storybook ending as it sought its first football title since 1985. 

The Tigers scored first – the first time North Central had trailed this season – and led by as many as nine points before a pair of plays changed the game’s course.

Holding a 21-20 lead with 2:15 left in the first half, St. Philip chose to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 from North Central’s 34 yard line – and was stuffed for a 3-yard loss by junior Tanner Poupore with help from a few teammates. 

On the next play, Whitens dropped a 63-yard touchdown pass just over the shoulder of junior running back Bobby Kleiman, who outran a defender for the go-ahead score.

“We’ve got a couple of guys, and we can just call their number and it seems to go for us every time,” Bellefeuil said. “We set up a couple of plays, and then we waited and waited and waited. And then we hit with that big pass to Bobby down the middle and it was just what we hoped would happen.” 

Less than two minutes later, junior Dawson Bilski intercepted a fourth-down St. Philip pass again in North Central territory. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Whitens led a 56-yard drive that included 28 and 34-yard passes to Kleiman and ended with Whitens scoring on a 1-yard run with a second left in the half.

“They just had a ton of weapons and speed that we couldn’t contain, and that was the ballgame,” Tigers coach Dave Downey said. “Once we get down, we’re pressing. We’re throwing the ball a lot more than what we probably should have. We like to run the ball a little bit more. When we went to the air, they defended the pass pretty well and they got to our quarterback quite a few times, and that was the difference too.”

The North Central defense did give up a season high in points, but those 33 were also a season low for the Tigers. St. Phil did end up with 380 total yards – senior running back Brayden Darr ran for 104 and two touchdowns despite plenty of North Central attention, and senior quarterback Brendan Gausselin threw for 172 and two scores – but St. Philip couldn’t make up for a pair of interceptions and the Jets’ 572 yards of offense. 

Darr also had 13 tackles to lead the Tigers, and Bilski had a team-high 12 for North Central.

Kleiman rushed for 205 yards on only 21 carries, good for an average of nearly 10 yards per attempt. He ran for five touchdowns to go with the sixth through the air. 

Bilski and Kleiman are two more of six starters on the Jets’ offense who have another season to play. After averaging 70 points a game and dominating most of all 13 wins, what could be next? 

“Keep working hard and just have fun,” Whitens said. “We’re in high school, having the time of our lives right now and doing things we love. We’re ready for next year, and I’m very excited.”

Click for a full box score. 

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Central quarterback Jason Whitens runs toward the end zone while St. Philip’s Trevor Searls (70) and Grayson Obey (16) give chase. (Middle) St. Philip quarterback Brendan Gausselin moves upfield while the Jets’ Taylor Belongia (79) and Zach Estrada (68) close in. (Below) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman hauls in a 63-yard scoring pass during the second quarter. (Photos by John Johnson.)

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.)