Saints Remember, Rally During Semifinal Run
November 20, 2015
By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ST. IGNACE – Tradition and excellence are distinctive parts of the athletic program at LaSalle High School at this eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula.
Located at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, St. Ignace has won five MHSAA girls basketball championships since 1999, and the school's football team won the 1983 Class C title. The football team also is currently preparing for its third MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 2011.
When the Saints face two-time defending Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central on Saturday at Thirlby Field in Traverse City, they will have an extra player in their huddle.
Mitchell Snyder, a three-year starter at center, was killed in a car accident following the school's homecoming in October when he was struck by an alleged drunk driver.
"Since his death, the team has really come together as a unit," said veteran St. Ignace News sportswriter Dave Latva.
Head coach Marty Spencer, in his 19th season at the helm, agreed. "This has been a rallying point for us," said Spencer, noting the Snyder family has become an integral part of every football game.
"This has brought us closer; it has brought his family closer to us. We have rallied around him. He is with us. He is on our shoulders. He is in our huddle."
Snyder's father, Brent, wears his son's No. 69 jersey to every game, and the players reach out and touch the jersey as they leave the locker room for the field. His number also appears on the back of each player's helmet.
In the first game after the accident, against Ironwood and played in Gladstone, Brent Snyder asked the Saints what they thought Mitchell would want them to do. Snyder told them Mitchell loved to play football, and they should continue to play the game.
The Saints ran their opening two plays against Ironwood with just 10 players, in memory of their deceased teammate. "Mitchell was there blocking for us," said Spencer.
Spencer said the coaching staff and players talked extensively about the tragic accident. "It was tough that first week. We struggled," said Spencer. "We talked a lot trying to find answers, and you never can answer those questions.
"We had to do that for our well-being, for us to survive. As he helps us through each game, it gets better and better for us. Not just for us, for the whole community."
Spencer has guided St. Ignace to an 11-1 record. Its only loss was 20-14 to unbeaten Ishpeming, which is in the Division 7 Semifinals for the fourth straight year. Last week the Saints beat perennial Division 8 power Crystal Falls Forest Park 22-8.
"Our kids are pretty resilient," said Spencer. "He (Mitchell Snyder) has been our backbone for this run. It could have destroyed us all. Mitchell's dad said there should be no more crying. Mitchell is not crying. He wants you to play football."
Because the Saints have played such powerful foes as Ishpeming and Forest Park, they will not be intimidated going up against a team the stature of Muskegon Catholic Central. "They are bigger than us, they have size and speed," said Spencer. "Our kids are confident. We have played some good teams (including also Fowler and Johannesburg-Lewiston). We are ready."
Leading the Saints is senior Gage Kreski, an all-state prospect in football and basketball and highly-sought college recruit in both sports. Kreski is the team's quarterback and was the Upper Peninsula's defensive player of the year (small school division, as voted by media) as a back. He also does the punting and returns punts.
"He does so much," said Spencer, noting Kreski had 11 interceptions as a sophomore and this year has scored off two of his three interceptions as offenses steer away from him. "He is a constant athlete who keeps working. He can play anywhere. He could be one heckuva wide receiver," said Spencer.
Kreski has rushed for 851 yards and added another 1,235 yards passing. He has solid backfield support from Mitchell Peterson, Andrew Goldthorpe and Dave LaVake, with linemen Cole Garen and Jared Helms setting the interior tempo for the two-time Ski Valley Conference champions.
Spencer said the heavily balanced Saints have emphasized defense this year with a 52 alignment (five linemen, two linebackers). "Against the run, this is the best it has ever been," he said.
The narrow loss to Ishpeming provided a confidence boost for the Saints, who have a fully home-grown coaching staff under Spencer, a downstate native. Spencer coached nearly every assistant coach when they played and said having St. Ignace grads on the staff "helps continue the legacy that has been built."
Two of the aides are volunteers who moved back home this fall, Chase and Zach Pierson, the sons of legendary St. Ignace football standout and coach Barry Pierson.
"It is nice having people who know the tradition here, the ins and outs of what the program means to people," said Spencer.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace players all wear a decal on their helmets in memory of late teammate Mitchell Snyder. (Middle) A Saints defender stacks up an Indian River Inland Lakes ball-carrier earlier this season. (Below) St. Ignace huddles during a break in play. (Photos courtesy of Kristi Gustafson.)
For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times
By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com
March 17, 2023
Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.
Last year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.
That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.
The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.
But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer.
The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.
Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.
Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.
Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.
“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing.
“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”
Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.
The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.
The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.
“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit.
“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”
This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.
Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.
The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.
“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.
“They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”
Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.
“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”
With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.
“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”
“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)