Northern Schools Find Solution in NMFL

September 6, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

With 17 schools spread across 11 counties, the Northern Michigan Football League has created an indelible footprint since it was born into existence five years ago.

The conference, made up of three divisions of schools in varying size, has been able to sustain and evolve despite an ever-changing football landscape up north that has made for a revolving door of membership from year to year.

“It continues to morph,” said Frankfort athletic director Dave Jackson, the conference’s commissioner and one of the founders of the league.

From the biggest schools in the Legends division — Benzie Central, Boyne City, Cheboygan, Grayling, Kalkaska, Kingsley and Traverse City St. Francis — to the smaller schools in the Leaders (Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Frankfort, Mancelona and Maple City Glen Lake) and Legacy divisions (Harbor Springs, East Jordan, Inland Lakes, Johannesburg-Lewiston and St. Ignace) the NMFL has provided easy avenues for scheduling as well as good, competitive balance for the programs that call it home.

“The scheduling aspect is where I go back to it,” said Johannesburg-Lewiston football coach and athletic director Joe Smokevitch. “It’s just been huge for us. Going into 2020 and 2021 my schedule is full, basically with teams from within the conference. They’re not all division games. I am crossing over and playing those other schools. It’s really helped with scheduling. Not having to go far away to play somebody. You look at our schedule. We play some quality opponents. I think the conference is very strong from top to bottom.”

The idea for the league was hatched in 2012 between schools in the Lake Michigan and Northwest conferences. Both leagues were seeing problems from smaller schools trying to compete with larger ones, and neither side benefitting from the affiliation. So, the two merged as a 13-team league comprised of two divisions of similar-sized enrollments.

The league has rarely stayed intact from year to year, switching to the three-division alignment with the growth to 20 teams in 2016 when it absorbed the remaining teams in the Ski Valley Conference, as well as withstanding the loss of six schools to 8-player football in the span of four years.

“We’ve taken schools in the league that didn’t last very long,” said Jackson. “We took in Newberry and they lasted just a year, then suddenly they’re 8-man. We took in Gaylord St. Mary. We took in Central Lake. Those teams were just a year or two and suddenly they’re gone. Our constitution calls for a two-year process of getting out, but those teams that had to go 8-man, they’re out for the next year. So, suddenly you’re scrambling again, which is the one thing we were trying to keep from having to do because there is no planning when that last-minute 8-man decision comes along and schools decide to make that plunge. There’s nothing you can really do when a school says they’re going to do that. You can’t say, ‘Well, the constitution says … .’ They’re going to do what they need to do.”

Fortunately for the league, it has been able to find suitable replacements at every turn. In fact, Ogemaw Heights and Sault Ste. Marie are set to join in 2020 to become part of the Legends division, bolstering the league to a robust 19 schools. Kalkaska and Boyne City will slide over to the Leaders division and Frankfort — one of the smallest 11-player football teams in the state — is moving to the Legacy division.

“It made sense to apply,” said Ogemaw Heights athletic director Jon Studley, noting four future conference foes already are on this year’s schedule. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to be a part of that. We’re going to be able to create some rivalries.

“I think fans of northern Michigan football benefit the most. They’re seeing competitive football week in and week out.”

As the NMFL has shown, the quality of football being played within the conference is at a high level, too. At least one team from the league has reached the Semifinal round of the MHSAA playoffs every season. Boyne City was a semifinalist in Division 6 in 2014, while St. Francis has represented the league in the Semifinals in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In 2016 two teams advanced that far — St. Ignace in Division 8 and Maple City Glen Lake in Division 6 — with Glen Lake reaching the Finals before falling to Jackson Lumen Christi 26-14.

“I think we’re really starting to get some respect,” said Glen Lake coach Jerry Angers. “I’ve talked to the teams downstate that we’ve played, they want to come up and play us. They’re not saying, ‘This is going to be an easy game.’ They’re saying, ‘This is going to be a fun game, and they’re going to give us something.’”

There remains the possibility the league will undergo more changes before it more comfortably stabilizes. Some schools have expressed interest in joining, and the threat of losing members to 8-player football remains for a few of the smallest schools. It’s nothing the league hasn’t dealt with before, however. Jackson said it comes down to maintaining a commitment to the schools that are in the conference and carefully examining any growth that could occur.

“We had our big meeting in December, and one thing we talked about is how we have to look out for each other,” said Jackson. “We’re trying to guarantee that the league will provide eight of your nine games. In most cases the league is providing all nine of the games. So, you know you’re going to have somebody to play and you’re not going to have to go looking. There’s a time we may control 11-man football for everything north of Lansing. I don’t know. It continues to grow because teams are looking for that stability and consistency year in and year out, so they know who their games are with and they know who they play.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Charlevoix, carrying the ball, opened this season with a 40-26 win over Elk Rapids. (Middle) East Jordan got a step on Harbor Springs on this play last week, but the Rams emerged with a slim 34-33 win. (Photos by Sports in Motion.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for

December 14, 2022

LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.

Southwest Corridor“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.

John GuilleanGuillean 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.”

Great anticipation

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.

Derek GriblerGribler 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 ShebestPam 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 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.)