By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
POWERS – Fielding Yost and his "Point-A-Minute" University of Michigan football powerhouse of more than a century ago had nothing on the supersonic Jets of Powers North Central.
In their first season of 8-player football, the Menominee County team is averaging a meteoric 73.6 points a game during a 5-0 start. The Jets, who play Eben Junction Superior Central on Saturday, have outscored their opponents 368-70.
This team is playing at a level not seen in Powers since, well, last March when the boys basketball team won the Class D championship with a 27-0 record. Six members of that team, led by all-state basketball guard and quarterback Jason Whitens, play football.
"When you are winning and you are playing good, it is always fun," said Whitens, a junior who was a wide receiver/defensive back on last season's 3-5 team. "When you come to practice, it is nice to know what it feels like (to win)."
In both sports, Whitens has the ability to adjust and adapt as the game situation dictates. "It is nice to know you can change what you want and get the best possible result," he said.
Coach Kevin Bellefeuil, in his 11th season during a tenure that includes four winning seasons and one postseason victory, said the transition from 11-player to 8 has been seamless and timely.
The Jets have been battling small football turnouts for years, with as few as 13 players available a few seasons ago. This year there are 18 players, which enables full-scale scrimmages under the 8-player version.
"In reality, we're just this little school of 120 kids," Bellefeuil said, noting more students came out for football this season with the change to the 8-player game. The shift also allowed the Jets to retain a junior varsity program, which is playing seven games under the 11-player format and the final two in the 8-player version.
Football began in 1972 at North Central, and the program has just 23 winning seasons. Of those, only nine ended with two or fewer losses, including a 9-0 run in 1980.
Athletic director Joe Pontbriand said, "there were two keys" to installing the 8-player game: number of participants and maintaining a jayvee program. "I think the process is working," he said.
"It becomes unhealthy," Pontbriand said of the injury factor caused in part by fatigue that occurs with small numbers of athletes trying to play 11-player football. "It is not all about winning. Eleven-man with no numbers means a long season."
Bellefeuil said the jayvees haven't played more than three games in any of the past five years, noting several players have been elevated to varsity to replace injured players.
The Jets use basically the same offense this season. Rob Granquist, now the starting quarterback for Concordia University in Chicago, earned all-Upper Peninsula Class D honors last season. Whitens this season has completed 42 of 53 passes for 939 yards and 17 touchdowns while directing a ground attack that has gained 1,297 yards in 129 attempts for a whopping 9.88 average.
The Jets have scored on every offensive possession in the first half this season, a staggering statistic. "The first half of a game we're pretty much 50-50 (run-pass)," said Bellefeuil, noting it is run-oriented in the running clock second half.
Bellefeuil, who calls the plays, indicated the Jets likely would be using more no-huddle offense this season to take advantage of their speed and overall athleticism. He said only five players would be considered linemen.
"We run the same things we have done before," said Bellefeuil. "We play the pistol, shotgun offense. It is a lot of fun calling plays. Having the kind of athletes we have, we can move in-and-out and out-and-in, whatever we want.
"We just dropped the tackles and the slot receiver for eight-man. It has not been different from what we did already. It has not been much of a transition."
Whitens said "we're having a lot of fun. We are all enjoying it."
Senior captain and tight end Brett Baird, who only plays football, said he enjoys the 8-player game more. "Once you get through the first two weeks and know the plays and how everything works, it is just football."
He said the 11-player game is harder because "there are a lot more linemen and there are bigger guys. The eight-man game has more (playing) room. There are strengths and weaknesses both ways. Football is football; it doesn't matter."
The 8-player game is a better fit for the Jets because now they are playing comparable-sized teams and schools. Under the 11-player version the Class D school had games against such Class C opponents as Norway, Manistique, Munising and Newberry.
The change has also been beneficial for the students. Bellefeuil said Morgan Cox, a tight end-defensive end who also plays basketball, has embraced the new format and gained confidence and maturity this year after the MHSAA title run in basketball. "Now he is one of the guys out in front for the drills. He is definitely a leader," said Bellefeuil.
"We talked about going eight-man for a couple of years," he added, noting now the Jets do not have to elevate freshmen or sophomores to the varsity. "You are asking 14-15 year old kids to tackle 18-19 year old kids. They were not ready for that, and it is dangerous."
He said practice does not "seem like drudgery to them" under 8-player football. "They like playing the football brand of basketball they play because it is familiar to them," noting the fast-break basketball style and up-tempo football approach.
Having more depth allows the Jets to have fresh players available for more plays, which also fits the up-tempo style. "Now we get to play all of our kids and we wear teams out, like teams used to wear us out," said Bellefeuil. "A lot of injuries happen when you are tired and fatigued."
Although the Jets are having success in their first season of 8-player, Pontbriand admits the change has not been totally accepted in the school district.
"Not everyone is buying in, but we have to do what is best for the kids," he said. "The varsity team has really bought in."
The carryover from the phenomenal basketball season has also been important. "Carrying that attitude and enthusiasm over to the grass sport can be a deadly combination," Pontbriand said. "Those six kids (from basketball) are born leaders, and the other kids who sit in the front row cheering section now get to be part of that on the front line.
"It definitely sets a tone" in the classroom and community, he said of that success to start the school year. "It builds confidence and gives the kids a sense of entitlement and a chance to succeed. If you're the best on the field, you want to be the best in the classroom."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Members of the North Central football team go through blocking and tackling drills at practice Wednesday in Powers. (Middle) North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil indicates a pass route he wants his receivers to take. (Below) Like North Central's helmets indicate, the Jets are flying high in their first season of 8-player, off to a 5-0 start while averaging 73.6 points a game. (Photos by Denny Grall.)
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.)