'Soccer School' Cheers Best Football Run
November 16, 2016
By Dean Holzwath
Special for Second Half
HUDSONVILLE – When people mention Hudsonville Unity Christian, the first thing most think about is the unparalleled success the school has experienced in boys and girls soccer.
The two programs have combined to win 14 MHSAA Finals with the girls capturing a remarkable 10 from 2005-2016.
However, another sport at the Ottawa County school is beginning to make a name for itself and gain attention.
The football team collected its first Division 4 Regional title last Friday with a 36-16 victory over Lake Odessa Lakewood.
The Crusaders (10-2) will appear in their first MHSAA Semifinal on Saturday against Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1).
This is their Unity Christian’s eighth appearance in the postseason, and their 10 wins thus far is a school record.
“Football is getting more of a notice now,” Unity senior quarterback Mitch Dykstra said. “Soccer has always been good at Unity and always will be, but football is becoming more prominent. It’s good to see.”
Unity’s deepest run in the MHSAA tournament wasn’t necessarily expected, especially after the team dropped two of its last three games to end the regular season.
The Crusaders won a school-record six straight games to open the season, but lost to Zeeland East (12-7) in Week 7 and Ottawa-Kent Conference Green champion Byron Center (40-19) in the regular-season finale.
Unity tied for second in the conference standings.
“We played hard, and in both games we battled,” said the Crusaders’ Craig Tibbe, the only head coach the program has had since its inception in 2003.
“We did some OK things, and took a few positives from that. We played one of the better teams (Byron Center) in the area that last week, but we gave good effort and moved the ball.”
The postseason started with a 24-6 victory over Three Rivers and a trip to the District Finals, but that’s where most prognosticators thought Unity’s season would end.
The Crusaders clashed with unbeaten Benton Harbor, a team loaded with size, speed and athleticism – and a mismatch in most people’s eyes.
“We were a little nervous about the unknown,” Tibbe said. “How good are they?”
Unity pulled off perhaps one its biggest wins in school history, a 35-34 overtime thriller. The Crusaders were moving on.
“It was a great game, and they were tired when we got home, but what a fun night,” Tibbe said. “They had a lot of skilled athletes, but we hung on and walked out of there with the W. Going forward, that definitely showed them that we could play with these guys. Even though we didn’t have the speed and size, we could go in there and battle.”
Last season, Unity possessed one of its better teams. It advanced to the Regional Finals for the first time before succumbing to eventual Division 4 champion Zeeland West.
The Crusaders lost several key starters from that squad, but found capable replacements. Still, Tibbe was unsure how this season would unfold.
“This season has been very special and a lot of fun,” he said. “You just never know from year to year how it’s going to go and these kids have surprised us, but what’s not surprising is how hard they’ve played week in and week out to survive.
“We look at it as why is it this way this year and not other years? We felt like we had a couple teams in the past that were pretty solid, but we ran into eventual state champs early.”
What hasn’t been mentioned is the Crusaders’ lack of numbers and depth. Throughout the season, they’ve dressed only 22 or 23 on the varsity.
Six starters and eight in all, including Dykstra and running backs Parker Scholten, Alec Headley, Austin Shaban and Luke DeGroot, play both offense and defense.
“They’ve been thrown into the fire and forced to do that when they start in our program,” Tibbe said. “It carries over, and they learn to take a little pride in the fact that this is what we do and we try to do the best we can with it.”
Unity senior tight end/linebacker Cole DeVries said there were doubts as to whether this team could surpass last year’s win total.
“We lost our whole lines, and not a lot of people believed that we could go as far as last year,” he said. “It’s been a journey, but definitely my favorite year. It’s the farthest we’ve ever been at Unity, and we’re making history. We’re doing a lot of things that Unity hasn’t done, and it’s been a blast for me.”
Added Dykstra: “I can’t describe how amazing this season is. No one believed in us, and it has pushed us to strive for greatness and that’s what we’ve done. We’re always undersized, and other teams have more players and athletes, but we work well together and we want to work hard for each other.”
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 email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudsonville Unity Christian players celebrate during a game this season. (Middle) The Crusaders' Alec Headley (5) finds an opening during the playoff win over Benton Harbor. (Photos by Larry Treece Jr./LTpics.com.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)