By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
PELLSTON — It’s a story that could easily derive from Hollywood.
Only, this script is being written in Pellston.
Leading up to the 2019 season, the narrative for the Pellston football team has been mostly a tale of woe.
Zero playoff appearances.
Twenty-three years without a winning season.
A .260 winning percentage since 1950.
This year, however, the plot has turned into a feel-good story as the Hornets have put together a season that’s only been dreamed about over the years, posting an 8-1 record and earning their first postseason berth.
“To go 8-1, it was great,” said Pellston head coach Jack Carter, a 1987 graduate of the school. “I knew we had some really good players, some great seniors. Strong leadership on that end. It all kind of came together for us, at least through the regular season. I don’t know if it’s being a miracle worker as much as we’re at the right place at the right time.”
Pellston quarterback Glenn Bonter is one of those seniors. Bonter moved to town two years ago from Grand Haven and immediately found his niche within the confines of the weight room. The other players who were there made him feel welcome, and they quickly became friends. They also filled him in on the school’s history in football.
“(I heard) that it was a struggle,” said Bonter. “That they hadn’t had a whole lot of success. That was something where we looked at it and all of us wanted it to change. Looking around in the weight room, I saw how much hard work and dedication kids were really putting into it. Pretty much the whole entire team would go to weight room in the summer. We would all go out to the field and just pass and do some running. I think it was a whole team thing. We were like, ‘You know what? We want to win, and we’re going to do it.’ We just kind of put our foot down and went for it.”
Carter is in just his third year leading the Hornets, though he is well-versed in how difficult it has been for the school to win on the football field having off-and-on been a part of the program in one capacity or another since 2001. He’s seen players and coaches come and go, working to get things heading in the right direction but often finding that to be an insurmountable hurdle.
“If you look at it strictly from wins and losses, it wouldn’t tell the complete story because we have not been that great,” said Carter. “But we’ve had, every single year, guys that went out there and worked so hard. Played with as much heart and emotion as you could expect. For me, I think that was the template, or the groundwork for us to build off.”
Pellston also laid some of the foundation for this season during last year’s 4-5 campaign. What might seem like a rebuilding year for some was a breakthrough for the Hornets. It was the most wins they had recorded in six years. Three of those wins came in succession, too — the first time the program had strung together consecutive victories since it opened the 2012 season with four straight victories.
That propelled the Hornets into the offseason with a ton of hunger. The team’s four seniors — Bonter, running back/defensive back Lakota Worthington, and linemen Evan Cameron and Joey Rizzardi — spearheaded the team’s participation in summer training. When the full squad met for the first time in August, it came in with good fitness, strength, talent and desire.
“We made sure to make the weight room a thing,” said Worthington. “We made sure to come in during the offseason and put in the work and made sure we worked on our routes.”
It didn’t take long for Pellston to reap the benefits of its hard work as it started the year with six wins in a row — the longest winning streak in school history. Among those victories were dramatic triumphs over Posen (42-38) and Au Gres-Sims (32-30) where the Hornets overcame halftime deficits of 16 and 18 points, respectively, to remain undefeated.
“Normally you just don’t come back from those type of deficits,” said Carter. “This group of guys, they just keep fighting. They keep believing, and they keep their heads up. Their positive outlook and attitude is first rate.”
“For us to rally back and win those games, it was unbelievable,” said Bonter.
Three games into his junior season, Bonter switched from running back to quarterback. He’s been dynamic in running the Hornets’ spread offense, accounting for 16 touchdowns rushing and 13 through the air. Junior David Jamroz, like Bonter, has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Worthington joins them in a backfield that features a great deal of speed. He also provides electricity in the return game.
“(He’s a) special returner,” Carter said of Worthington, a four-year varsity player. “He’s been that sparkplug and that catalyst that we’ve been needing for quite a while. In 8-man football a lot of times teams choose not to really kick to guys who are like that. It seems like every time a ball did go to him, he made the most of it. If he didn’t get a touchdown out of it, he certainly flipped the field for us and gave us great starting position on offense.”
The Hornets have averaged 46 points per game. The only time they’ve been held under 30 points was a 38-14 loss to Hillman in the seventh week, a game where injuries hampered Pellston’s chances.
“I think we just had an off night,” said Bonter. “They’re a really good football team. A lot of respect to Hillman. They should go far; but yeah, that was a tough loss.”
“We learned that sometimes only going in with 11 players can get you in trouble,” said Carter. “We did get hit with some injuries that night. Secondly, Hillman was the first team that really came out and really played good, sound, hard-hitting football, especially on the defensive side. They have a history of being able to make the playoffs, and they’ve had success in football. They showed why they’re at where they’re at.”
The Hornets were able to rebound and finished the regular season with a pair of convincing wins over St. Helen Charlton Heston and Central Lake.
If the current football playoff system was in place in 1995, Pellston wouldn’t have had to wait until this season to gain its first postseason bid. That year the Hornets went 8-1 but did not qualify because they ultimately didn’t have enough playoff points.
Twenty-four years later Pellston finally buzzed its way into the postseason. It opens the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 tournament with a Pre-Regional on Friday against Gaylord St. Mary.
“I’m so ready. I’m ready today,” said Worthington. “I just want to go out there and show everybody what we can do. I know Gaylord (St. Mary) is pretty good, but I’m ready to get them.”
The Snowbirds come into the game with a 4-5 record, but four of their first six wins were forfeited for using an ineligible player.
“St. Mary is coming in with a really, really good football team,” said Carter. “I look at them as an 8-1 football team, and we have to look at them that way.”
As magical as this season has been for the Hornets, they feel like there is still more of the story to be told and are looking to add a few more chapters in the coming weeks as the playoff scenario unfolds.
“Hopefully we have a good Hollywood ending with it and keep it going into the playoffs,” said Carter.
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 email@example.com 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) Pellston’s David Jamroz (20) races through the Au Gres-Sims defense during a Week 3 win. (Middle) The Hornets stack the line during a Week 2 victory over Posen. (Photos courtesy of the Pellston athletic department.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)