By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
CUTLERVILLE – With the 2015 season opener against Grand Rapids Christian a few days away, South Christian football coach Mark Tamminga said quarterback isn’t a position that's stressing him out.
That statement might be a bit surprising considering Tamminga graduated this spring one of the most prolific passers in Michigan High School Athletic Association history.
Jon Wassink capped a banner high school career last fall by guiding the Sailors to a Division 4 championship with a dramatic 28-27 win over Lansing Sexton.
Wassink, a three-year starter, took his talents to Western Michigan University, but not before finishing second all-time in the MHSAA record book for career passing yards with 8,124.
In fact, Wassink’s name appears in the MHSAA record book 17 times despite playing only three varsity seasons. He’s third in career passing attempts (884), second in completions (584) and fifth in touchdown passes (76).
“We’re never going to replace a Jon Wassink; there’s no doubt about that,” Tamminga said after practice last week. “But I have two kids right now fighting for the quarterback position, and whichever one gets the job is going to be a very good high school quarterback. Maybe an all-conference quarterback, I’m not sure, but the quarterback position right now is pretty far down on my worry list.
“We have other things to worry about. Our line, our receivers, but we’re going to be fine with our quarterback. We’re going to score some points.”
Besides Wassink, the Sailors graduated a bevy of talent from a senior class that won 12 straight games after an 0-2 start to win their second MHSAA Final in three seasons.
Eighteen starters are gone, leaving behind a young team stacked with juniors and sophomores.
The only remaining starters are seniors Ezinga, Niewiek, John Masselink (TE/S) and Dylan Brink (RB/LB).
“We lost a great senior class, all the way down,” Tamminga said. “They were such great leaders, and the kids rallied around them. I told this year’s group that it’s their turn. They have to step up. You can win games with underclassmen, but to win consistently you have to have senior leadership, and that’s what I need from those guys. So far they have shown that, and we’re pretty proud of them.”
The person attempting to fill the void left by Wassink was yet to be determined at the start of this week. Junior Eric Dykstra and sophomore Andrew Haan are vying for the starting position.
Dykstra is the frontrunner, but recently suffered a wrist injury. That allowed Haan to take a majority of reps in practice and during the Sailors’ preseason scrimmage.
Tamminga said both have the potential to step in and lead this year’s squad.
“I would say Eric has the upper hand if healthy, but it is so close,” he said. “We don’t lose a beat with Andrew in there either. Both of them realize they have big shoes to fill, but what is so great is they don’t feel they have to be the next Jonny Wassink. They are going to be them, and they are going to be very good high school quarterbacks.”
South Christian also will miss Wassink’s ability to run the ball. He rushed for 3,252 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons.
“He definitely made big plays with his arm and his legs, which I think is going to hurt us the most,” Sailors’ right guard Josh Ezinga said. “He was such a two-dimensional player that defenses had to either prepare for him running-wise or passing-wise.
“And even though as a lineman you try not to miss a block, it happens once in a while, and he would just make a play and make you look like you’re the best in the world because he would make people miss.”
The absence of Wassink will be felt from a leadership standpoint as well. He wasn’t only a playmaker, he was there to help the younger players improve.
“Obviously Jon was a great player, but he also was a great leader,” senior wide receiver Jake Niewiek said. “He helped me a lot when I was getting started with the offense. Being a receiver in the system was a little complicated, but he really took us under his wing and showed us what we had to do.”
But Tamminga said adjustments have been made to atone for Wassink not being on the field in 2015.
“We basically had it pretty easy when he was here, and now we have to step up and coach to our strengths,” he said. “You have to coach differently because Jonny was like having another coach on the field. These kids are not going to be able to do the things that Jonny did. We have to adjust as coaches to compensate for that.”
The key losses by the Sailors have other teams chomping at the bit to dethrone the two-time Ottawa-Kent Gold champions.
But while others may deem this a down year, South Christian hopes to maintain the same tradition of winning to which it has become accustomed.
“I think there are different expectations for us from the public and the media, but I think all the pieces of the puzzle are there and we can still be a great team this year,” Ezinga said. “I definitely think we can win with sophomores and juniors, and they realize they have to go hard every single play.”
Niewiek agreed that this year’s team can still be a formidable challenger.
“Practices have been great and everyone has been working their butts off,” he said. “We obviously have lower expectations than last year, but we hope to surprise some people. We want to keep the bar set high.”
Tamminga said the first goal is to get to six wins, which won’t be easy with three straight playoff teams on the schedule to open the season.
“We want to make the playoffs,” he said. “Just make the playoffs, but what worries me is if we don’t have three good games and go 0-3. I still believe we can go 6-3 and make the playoffs. They have to believe it, and that’s the challenge ahead of us right now.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) South Christian’s Jake Niewiek celebrates a turnover during last season’s Division 4 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) The Sailors’ Jake Elzinga works to stay in front of a Sexton ball carrier; both he and Niewiek return this fall.
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 email@example.com 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.)