By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – Their parents are taking credit for this, and for many reasons, rightfully so.
But the moms and dads who birthed the athletes rolling through Powers North Central’s football and boys basketball programs these last few years never stacked championships like this. For that matter, no class at any Michigan school has accomplished what the Jets seniors added to Friday night.
North Central’s 58-22 win over Deckerville at Legacy Field finished a second straight undefeated 8-player football championship season for the Jets, to go with two straight undefeated Class D championship teams for their boys basketball team – and ignited questions of how a school with only 115 students from a small Upper Peninsula community could come up with such a collection of talent.
Jets assistant coach Gerald Whitens provided his son, star quarterback and hoops guard Jason Whitens, with one explanation.
“Most of our parents went to North Central. It’s coming back around,” Jason Whitens said. “We had a good family group that stayed at Powers North Central, and we just kept filtering through and growing as a group. My dad said he blazed the path for us, and we just made it even bigger. So I have to give him a little credit.”
Added senior running back Bobby Kleiman, whose dad Scott also is a football assistant and played with Gerald Whitens on the school’s 1984 Class D champion basketball team: “(This kind of group) doesn’t come by often, I can tell you that. But we’re blessed to have the kids we have. The timing, everything, it just fell into place. We grew up with each other, we love each other, and it’s just a blessing to have the kids we have.”
That blessing to North Central athletics has been an unmovable obstacle for football opponents the last two seasons.
The Jets finished this run 13-0 to move to 26-0 since switching to 8-player before the start of the 2015 season.
But this most recent win didn’t come as smoothly as the score might indicate – at least during most of one quarter.
The first belonged to North Central, and the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Whitens in particular. In 2015, Kleiman became the first player in the then-five seasons of 8-player football to run for more than 200 yards in an MHSAA Final, finishing with 205. Whitens obliterated that record in the first quarter Friday, running for 231 yards and three touchdowns on only five carries as the Jets opened up a 20-0 lead.
But Deckerville, also undefeated and making its first championship game appearance since winning 8-player in 2012, didn’t fold. In fact, the Eagles (11-1) rode the running of senior tailback Austin Fritch and senior quarterback Brandon Pattullo, who combined for 162 yards rushing and three touchdowns during the second quarter to put the Eagles up suddenly 22-20 with 1:57 to play before the break.
North Central had trailed only once before this season, into the third quarter Week 2 against Crystal Falls Forest Park before coming back to win 60-42.
“We’re not used to other people scoring on us and having close games,” Bobby Kleiman said. “But we played Crystal Falls two weeks ago (a 60-50 Regional Final rematch); they’re an exact replica of this team. We had one of the craziest games ever with them, and they really prepared us for this game.”
Indeed, Whitens scored on a 44-yard run a minute after Deckerville took its lead, and the Jets never trailed again. Kleiman added a 49-yard scoring run less than three minutes into the third quarter, and Whitens added 37 and 2-yard scoring runs and a 71-yard touchdown pass to senior Marcus Krachinski.
Whitens finished with an 8-Player Finals rushing record that may not be broken in some time, 352 yards on only 17 carries (20.7 yards per carry) with six touchdowns. His numbers could’ve been greater, or at least different if for just two plays, both dropped passes that likely would’ve resulted in touchdowns. Still, Whitens completed 6 of his 12 throws for 100 yards despite rain that blew sideways for most of the first three quarters.
Deckerville had given up only 50 points total this season and only 18 during the playoffs despite facing two other undefeated teams.
“We made a nice comeback there, but you’ve still got to keep going, and we weren’t able to make some plays,” Deckerville coach Bill Brown said. “We can’t give up big plays and expect to win. We don’t have a kid like that that can get 80-yard runs every time and score.”
Fritch and Pattullo did both finish with 133 yards rushing, Pattullo on only 12 carries for an average of 11.1 yards per attempt.
Kleiman added 123 yards rushing on 10 carries despite what North Central read as Deckerville aligning to stop him early on. That read led to Whitens’ big first quarter, including a 38-yard run on the first offense play of the game, on the “dart” quarterback keeper play that North Central continued to throw at the Eagles throughout the night.
The addition of Friday’s performance gave Whitens 2,496 yards and 44 touchdowns passing this season, along with 943 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing.
He’s one of 11 seniors who played his last high school football game – and six of those seniors also played in last season’s Class D Basketball Final.
“This is the best class probably ever in the state, to do what they’ve done,” North Central coach Kevin Bellefeuil said. “Two basketball titles, two football titles, and they have to be a favorite to win a third one (in hoops).
“This is a special group of kids. We have the right mix of skill players, offensive linemen, linebackers; we have a little bit of everything.”
And some will take only a short break. Whitens said at first he’d be back to work for basketball Saturday morning. Then he self-corrected – he’ll wait until Monday instead.
“You’re never satisfied with who you were last year, or the day before. You’re always growing to get better each and every day of your life, and that’s how I go about my life,” Whitens said.
“We’ve got our eyes on the ultimate prize. This is our last year, last run at it, and we’re going to enjoy it. … I’m going to get home, join our community, let them bask in the glory with us. And then Monday morning, I’m ready to go.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central quarterback Jason Whitens breaks away for one of his six rushing touchdowns Friday. (Middle) A Deckerville ball carrier works to get free of a North Central defender. (Below) Whitens confers with Jets coach Kevin Bellefeuil. (Photos by John Johnson/MHSAA.)
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.)