Pack is Back: Longtime Coach Returns

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

September 18, 2020

MANCHESTER – Ben Pack never stopped being a coach. He just didn’t have a team for the past 18 years. 

Pack stepped away as a football coach at Jackson High School in 2002, and other than a brief interim job in 2012, has not been on the sidelines since. But tonight, Pack is Back. 

“When I got into coaching in the 1970s it was about the kids,” Pack said. “That’s the same reason I’m coming back.” 

Pack was named head coach at Manchester in March. His season begins tonight when the Flying Dutchmen host Addison in a Cascades Conference opener. 

It’s been a strange journey over the past few months. After he was hired, he had hoped to get into the Manchester halls and start looking to build the numbers for the Manchester football program, which has been down to around 35-40 players the last couple of seasons. 

“When the Manchester job opened up, I applied and was hired in March,” Pack said. “Covid hit a week later. It’s been somewhat of a tailspin since. It’s nothing liked I had planned for.” 

Not even the best planners could have predicted what 2020 has been like for high school football. But, when the season was brought back a few weeks ago, Pack and his colleagues from across the state went right to work. It’s a tough time to build a program. 

“One of the Achilles we’ve been facing is low participation,” he said. “Trying to get the numbers up when school is not in session is very difficult. The players didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. I didn’t have any of their phone numbers or e-mail addresses. It was a struggle. 

“I think if I would have been in the building, we could have resurrected those numbers to 45-50.” 

Instead, Manchester is 37 kids strong playing high school football.  

“The kids have done a fabulous job,” Pack said. “We’ve had a few hiccups, but we are young. About 30 of our kids have never stepped onto a varsity field. There are some good kids, but they don’t have any experience. I still expect them to do well. We coach them to do well. We’ve gone all in, and they’ve responded.” 

Manchester is no stranger to the postseason or success. The Flying Dutchmen made the playoffs every year but once from 2003 to 2015. Last year they went 4-5. Pack is working in a new offense and modified defense as he embarks on his first season leading the program.  

“Trying to get everything put into the game plan in eight or nine days is brutal,” he said. “But I love teaching kids the game of football. I love that part.” 

Manchester is in Washtenaw County, about 20 miles from Pack’s hometown of Jackson. Pack was a three-sport athlete for Jackson High School before going on to Jackson Community College and, later, Central Michigan University. 

He was coaching as soon as he became an adult, first as a volunteer. He was the head coach at Parma Western from 1983-1986, then coached 16 years at Jackson, from 1987 to 2002, leading the school to its first playoff appearances. He came back briefly in 2012 on an interim basis to coach Jackson. He was hired at the last minute, and the team went 0-9.  

“The assistant superintendent tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You have the experience. We need you to coach football,’” Pack said. “I did it, but everybody knew it was just for the year. We got through it.” 

Pack has a career high school record of 75-119. He also was an assistant coach at Albion College for a short time. His most recent job as an assistant coach was at Parma Western after he retired from the classroom. 

“I thought it was a good chance to get back into it,” he said. “I told my wife it was going to confirm if I really wanted to coach again. When you are a coach these days, it’s an all-in commitment. With the time commitment it takes, you really have to want to coach.” 

Pack said he gave up coaching because of the opportunity to become an administrator, not because he didn’t have a passion for football.  

"It was the right thing to do for my family,” he said. “I had to be a dad. I told my wife when I did it that as soon as I retired, I was going to get back into it.”  

Pack said he missed it every day. His comeback begins tonight, but don’t expect a quick exit. He’s waited years to get back on the sidelines and is having a blast doing it. 

“When I was out of coaching, I was still a coach,” he said. “I worked at it every single day in hopes that I would position myself to get back into it. I studied film. I was a habitual attender of college practices. I kept working on my playbook and schemes. I never stopped any of that. I worked on those things all of the time.” 

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTO: Manchester coach Ben Pack watches over his players as they stretch during practice this fall. (Photo by Doug Donnelly.)

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.)