By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
LANSING – On a frequently stormy Monday in the shadow of iconic Archie Ross Stadium, the sun broke in for the end of Lansing Everett’s first football practice – just in time for coach Mike Smith to remind his players they have an opportunity to accomplish great things this fall.
Senior Noah Smith knows it. He may have been a first-grader in 2007 when Mike Smith left one of the state’s top Division 1 programs at Holt, but he’s heard plenty about those Rams – who finished the coach’s tenure with 25 straight league wins over four seasons and a District title.
Noah Smith was following mid-Michigan football much more closely in 2013, when Mike Smith took over an Eaton Rapids program that had never made the playoffs and immediately led the Greyhounds to two postseason appearances in his first two seasons.
“I knew that at Eaton Rapids, he came in and changed the program – and when I heard that he was coming here, I was hoping he would do that here,” Noah Smith said.
And Noah’s reaction after Monday’s first session?
“He’s going to change the program,” Smith adamantly added.
It’s not that easy, and even over-the-top to say Mike Smith has made it look that way. But it’s also impossible to argue with his work over the last 30 years.
The Detroit Denby and Michigan State University graduate took over a Dansville team in 1989 coming off a 1-8 finish and led the Aggies to a combined 32-6 run over four seasons including two they finished at 9-1.
After a one-year stop at Eaton Rapids in 1993 (the Greyhounds went 5-4, their last winning season before 20 straight below .500), Smith moved on to Holt in 1994, taking a Rams varsity that hadn’t won more than six games since 1981 to the Class A championship game in 1995. Holt was 98-54 over his 15 seasons with the Rams.
Smith left to assist at Olivet College, then assisted at Grand Ledge for a season before returning to Eaton Rapids in 2013 and leading the Greyhounds to 7-5 and then 8-4 records over his first two seasons – and a 25-26 run overall while navigating a league that has sent three of its six teams to Ford Field over the last eight seasons.
Add it up, and the first four high school varsities (including Eaton Rapids twice) that Smith has taken over were a combined 8-28 the year before – and a combined 24-15 his first seasons. All told, Smith enters this fall at Everett 160-90 for his career and raring for this next challenge and the greater opportunities to educate that come with it.
“I love to teach. I love this part about, it’s not just the football,” Smith said. “It’s about doing something for someone else, the greater good, the whole thing like that. I just really, really enjoy coaching. But it’s not just that – it’s the teaching as well.”
Everett welcomes Smith coming off a 1-8 finish a year ago after former coach Marcelle Carruthers – who turned the program into a local power over 17 seasons – stepped down in the spring to become principal at Lansing Eastern.
Smith had 25 players on the field Monday, with three more for sure on the way, and he expects to end up with a roster in the low 30s – and with junior varsity and freshman teams as well, the freshman team possibly the largest of the three.
Smith also took over as the school’s athletic director in January. He knew his athletes coming into the first practice, but not as football players – and he admitted to being a little nervous Sunday night as he readied for another start.
Noah Smith said his classmates were a little anxious as well when Mike Smith was hired. But that’s eased as they’ve become familiar with their jolly new leader who long has been known for matching intensity with playfulness and genuine care for his athletes.
Noah Smith is entering his fourth season on varsity and earned all-league honors as a receiver last season in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue. Mike Smith’s “calmer” approach caught his attention Monday, even as the new coach did make vocal points on occasion.
“It brings us together even more. You realize that he’s there. He’s actually coaching us. He’s a real coach for us,” Noah Smith said.
Mike Smith said he’s watching this week to see who shows up every day and works hard every day – another part of the culture he’s bringing from his previous stops.
Noah Smith knows it will be sinking in “when people start listening all the time instead of most of the time. We listen, I can honestly say we listen, but we need to listen all the time instead of most of the time because most of the time’s not going to cut it.”
This first practice was over by noon, and Mike Smith already was enjoying what he saw about 100 yards in front of him – players on both sides of assistant Jacob Wyatt, chatting up the former Sexton and Eastern Michigan standout on their way to the locker room.
“If you do the right thing every day, the game’s going to take care of itself,” he said. “You need to know what kind of offense and defense to run and put your kids in the best spots to be successful. (But) the other thing I’ve always stressed to my teams, this team can’t be my team. It’s gotta be your team. When you can get the kids all playing for each other, you’ve got yourself there.”
PHOTOS: (Top) First-year Lansing Everett football coach Mike Smith talks with his team at the end of their first practice of this season Monday. (Middle) A row of Vikings line up during a kickoff drill. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)
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.)