By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
For the fourth time in five seasons of the MHSAA 8-Player Football Tournament, tonight’s championship game will match finalists from the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
And there’s little argument both teams are the best from their sides of the bridge.
Battle Creek St. Philip and Powers North Central are both undefeated and have both dominated opponents all fall in earning this trip to Legacy Field in Greenville.
See below for a glance at both teams. Tickets for the 8-player Final cost $8. The game also will be broadcast live on FoxSportsDetroit.com, with live audio streaming on MHSAANetwork.com. On-demand video will be available shortly after the game’s conclusion at MHSAA.tv.
BATTLE CREEK ST. PHILIP
Coach: David Downey, fourth season (38-7)
League finish: First in Southern Central Athletic Association.
Championship history: Class D 11-player champion 1985.
Best wins: 65-32 over Morrice, 47-44 and 58-14 (Regional Final) over Lawrence, 52-24 over Deckerville in Semifinal, 55-16 over Waldron.
Players to watch: RB/LB Brayden Darr, 5-10/185, sr. (1,465 yards/27 TDs rushing, 993 yards/17 TDs receiving, 114 tackles); QB Brendan Gausselin, 6-2/190, sr. (2,333 yards/38 TDs passing, 338 yards/8 TDs rushing); WR/DB David Downey, 6-1/150, sr. (739 yards/13 TDs receiving, 83 tackles/5 interceptions); WR/LB Drew Latinga, 6-2/160, jr. (319 yards/5 TDs receiving, 138 tackles), OL/DL Trevor Searls, 6-0/190, sr. (124 tackles/13 sacks).
Outlook: After three seasons finishing a combined 26-7 but falling in the Regional Final at the end of each, St. Philip has broken through with a perfect run and entered the playoffs with the highest playoff point average of any 8-player team. Only rival Lawrence, in their first of two meetings this fall, came within four touchdowns of St. Phil. The offense runs through Darr, who scored seven touchdowns – four rushing and three receiving – in the Semifinal and also combines with Latinga and Searls to lead a defense giving up an incredible 17.2 points per game, which would be impressive even without considering the offense-driven nature of 8-player.
POWERS NORTH CENTRAL
Coach: Kevin Bellefeuil, 10th season (52-52)
League finish: First in Western 8 Conference.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 70-6 over Cedarville in Semifinal, 82-20 and 64-8 (Regional Final) over Rapid River, 68-16 over Engadine.
Players to watch: QB/DB Jason Whitens, 6-4/200, jr. (2,315 yards/43 TDs passing, 605 yards/10 TDs rushing, 24 tackles/5 interceptions); WR/LB Dawson Bilski, 6-3/170, jr. (857 yards/15 TDs receiving, 62 tackles/6 interceptions); RB/OLB Bobby Kleiman, 6-0/165, jr. (1,414 yards/21 TDs rushing, 760 yards/16 TDs receiving, 26 tackles/3 interceptions); DE Morgan Cox, 6-2/210, sr. (48 tackles/14 sacks); DB Dylan Gagne, 5-11/160, jr. (413 yards/5 TDs rushing, 243 yards/4 TDs receiving, 37 tackles).
Outlook: North Central has taken 8-player football by storm in its first season, averaging 71.4 points per game and giving up only 11.1. No opponent has come within 46 points of the Jets. Not coincidentally, Whitens and Bilski also started on last season’s Class D championship basketball team, while Kleiman was the first sub off the bench and a handful of other football players were contributors. Whitens’ 43 touchdown passes have come on 165 attempts – and with zero interceptions. But the defense is averaging two interceptions per game – junior defensive back Marcus Krachinski has grabbed eight, while senior linebacker Max Krachinski has two and also has recovered two fumbles.
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.)