By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Yes, Grand Rapids West Catholic was well aware of Saturday’s history-making opportunity at Ford Field.
But this fall it rested on an experienced Falcons group that shined again Saturday at Ford Field, riding the experience of what’s become an annual trip to Detroit.
West Catholic’s 34-7 win over Saginaw Swan Valley gave it five consecutive Division 5 titles, tying the program with Farmington Hills Harrison 1997-2001 and East Grand Rapids 2006-10 for the longest Finals winning streaks in MHSAA football history.
“I think one of the hardest things is coming in and working hard every day throughout the whole offseason, throughout the season itself,” said West Catholic senior Gaetano Vallone, who quarterbacked these last three champions. “Not a lot of programs can do that.
“With our guys, everyone’s there in the morning from freshman to varsity level, so that really helps us. We have a lot of dedication.”
And the Falcons have had Vallone – a major difference maker again Saturday.
He completed 10 of 14 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns, and ran 17 times for 60 yards and a score. That put his season totals at 2,677 yards and 31 passing TDs and 927 and 15 on the ground.
Over three MHSAA Finals, Vallone averaged 197 yards and two touchdowns passing and 86 yards and a score running the ball as the Falcons previously beat River Rouge 40-34 in 2015 and Menominee 43-7 a year ago with him running the show.
West Catholic coach Joe Hyland called Vallone the best competitor he’s coached. And Swan Valley coach Kevin Gavenda noted how Vallone has played more high school games in three years – including more than a season’s worth in the playoffs – than most to acquire such valuable experience. That’s paid off in playmaking ability but also in perspective, which pays off in potentially stressful situations like the Semifinal where the Falcons trailed Frankenmuth 21-0 before coming back to win 25-21.
“My sophomore year I was just kinda going with the flow, trying to do my best, trying to put the team in a position with my abilities,” Vallone said. “Now as a senior, I’ve gotten a lot better, more knowledgeable of the game. Sometimes I call (Coach) off, because I see something, and he allows me to do that because he trusts me.”
Vallone was not alone, of course, among Falcons who were contributing to a second or third championship Saturday. And that experience seemed to come through in West Catholic’s workmanlike approach.
The Falcons scored on their first three possessions and six of their first seven, putting up all 34 points by the 5-minute mark of the third quarter. Swan Valley’s lone score came on the last play of that period.
West Catholic outgained Swan Valley only 296-265. But the Falcons had only one penalty and intercepted three passes, plus took back the ball on three turnovers on downs (not counting a fourth on the final play of the game).
Vallone found seven receivers, with junior Jack Schichtel and senior Zack Lee catching scoring passes. Junior defensive back Mitchell Doyle had 10 tackles and an interception. Senior defensive back Connor Bolthouse had nine tackles, and senior defensive back Zaavon Scott had the other two interceptions and ran one back 28 yards for a touchdown.
“Experience, as I’ve said quite a bit, has been a huge advantage for us throughout the course of my time here,” said Hyland, who finished his second season as coach and third at the school after previously coaching in South Carolina. “Especially when it comes to playoff time. These guys have been in very difficult situations and fought their way out. They have not in any way panicked despite some unfortunate plays on our part and really good plays by the teams we have competed against.”
West Catholic finished 12-2, its losses by three Week 1 to eventual Division 6 repeat champion Jackson Lumen Christi and by two Week 8 to eventual Division 4 repeat champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Before the Frankenmuth scare, West Catholic also edged Portland 28-26 on the road to earn a Regional title. Frankenmuth, Swan Valley and Portland had the three highest playoff-point averages in Division 5 during the regular season.
The Vikings (12-2) were making their first appearance in an MHSAA football championship game, and Saturday’s loss was their first since Week 1.
“It was a big step for the program, even getting here, going from last year with the disappointing loss to our rivals (Freeland) in the playoffs first round,” Swan Valley senior running back Emmett Boehler said. “To come to Ford Field the next year is a big step.
“I know this program is going in the right direction. And I know Coach is leading us in the right direction, so I know these guys next year Alex (Fries) and Brock (Leinberger), we’ll be back here again.”
Leinberger ran 10 times for 67 yards and the touchdown, and Boehler added 61 yards on the ground to finish with more than 1,600 this season.
Leinberger also had a team-high 12 tackles.
He and Fries, the quarterback, were among a talented group of juniors who could have the Vikings back in the hunt next season as West Catholic also goes for a record-breaking sixth straight title.
“When you have five extra games, that’s big for all of the kids that we brought up,” Gavenda said. “We’re starting six juniors on offense, six juniors on defense, and a lot of these guys are going to be three-year starters next year.
“I don’t think this program is going anywhere any time soon, but you’re never guaranteed anything. We know the grind it took to get here this year, but we’re excited, absolutely.”
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids West Catholic coach Joe Hyland raises the champion’s trophy with his players Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) The Falcons’ Zaavon Scott wraps up Swan Valley’s Terryon Liddell.
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.)