DETROIT – To the casual observer, Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s fifth MHSAA football title in six years may seem a little ho-hum.
Don’t tell that to John Passinault. This one was special – way different than what he may have envisioned at the start of the season.
The senior quarterback connected with Notre Dame commit Nolan Ziegler on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, and the GRCC defense did the rest in a 31-7 victory over Marine City in the Division 5 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.
Joey Silveri, GRCC’s three-year starting QB, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. That’s when Passinault, a 6-foot, 180-pound converted receiver, switched to the signal-caller position. Passinault picked up where Silveri left off and helped lead the Cougars to a second-straight Division 5 title, their sixth championship in the last dozen years and seventh overall.
“Well, it’s surreal. Before the season, if you would have told me this was going to happen, I would have told you you’re crazy,” said Passinault, who finished the game 15-of-28 passing for 221 yards with one interception.
“A bad thing happened to a really good kid, Joey Silveri, and that’s just the mindset of the team to step in where it’s needed. I went from wide receiver to quarterback and it’s pretty easy to do that when I have guys around me like Nolan, Ronin Russell-Dixon, Devin Fridley-Bell, Luke Kuzner, Jack Rellinger. I have all those guys around me, it’s easy to step into that role and just settle in.”
GRCC (14-0) completed its third perfect season in the last five years, but Marine City (13-1) made the Cougars work for it for the better part of three quarters Saturday.
GRCC led 10-0 in the second quarter after a 29-yard field goal by junior John Meyer and a 2-yard TD run by Rellinger, a senior. Marine City hung in there, however, and pulled within 10-7 on junior QB Jeff Heaslip’s 3-yard scoring pass to senior Charles Tigert with a little more than three minutes left in the half.
The score remained that way until the closing seconds of the third quarter. Ziegler, a 6-4, 210-pound receiver and linebacker, caught a pass over the middle from Passinault, turned the corner and raced down the sideline for a 59-yard scoring play.
That seemed to ignite the Cougars’ offense a bit.
“My team, they blocked well, it was a great pass by John,” Ziegler said. “We were just kind of playing backyard football out there honestly, and we just got things going. I got a good block from the receivers, and I just got down and got it in.”
The Passinault-to-Ziegler connection struck again four minutes later, this time on a 17-yard TD play, as the Cougars began to pull away. Ziegler finished with seven receptions for 136 yards, plus he notched a game-high 13 tackles in displaying his Power Five college football credentials.
Senior linebacker Jack Klafeta put the exclamation point on the victory for GRCC with a 34-yard scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter. Klafeta notched nine tackles, as did junior Jack Cook.
“Just their athleticism all over the field, their physicality up front, made things very difficult,” said Marine City coach Daryn Letson, whose team allowed no more than 14 points in a single game this season prior to Saturday.
“You know, our defense played their hearts out. I think our whole team played their hearts out,” Letson said. “You know, they have those kids and we just weren’t able to do enough offensively when we needed to.”
GRCC finished with a narrow edge in total offense, 228-215. The Mariners outrushed the Cougars, 77-7.
Heaslip was 14-of-22 passing for 138 yards. Senior Wyatt Walker led Marine City defensively with nine tackles.
This was the sixth state title in 10 seasons overall for GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who is now 112-12 at the Cougars’ helm. They also won titles under him in 2010, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. GRCC’s first came in 1987.
Kolster said the Cougars made great strides from the start of this season.
“It’s a pretty surreal thing for these guys up here – just unbelievably proud of them for so much that they’ve accomplished this year,” he said. “This team probably has come as far as any football team in a season that I’ve coached.
“Just coming together, learning what it takes, getting experience, understanding each other, fighting, competing. That’s a process and we were far, far away with them at the beginning of the season. To come here and be able to get this done, the credit goes 100 percent to our seniors.”
It was an emotional farewell for Passinault. He carried on the strong QB play provided by Silveri, who is a college prospect and led the Cougars to Finals titles in 2019 and 2020.
As a passer, Passinault proved more than capable in his own right. He threw for 2,307 yards and 37 TDs this season.
“This is it. That will probably be the last time I ever play football, so it’s just crazy to think that that’s the last time I’ll play specifically with these people,” Passinault said. “ … It’s just crazy. As a kid, you just dream about this. And to have it happen, it’s just a surreal feeling – and having dreams come true, it’s crazy.”
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Will Smith (73) hoists teammate Nolan Ziegler as they celebrate during Friday’s Division 5 championship win. (Middle) A host of GRCC and Marine City players stack up to a standstill. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)