St Phil Football Thrives with 8 on Field

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

August 22, 2016

BATTLE CREEK — Five years ago, the future of football at Battle Creek St. Philip looked rather bleak.

The Fighting Tigers had won just three games over the previous two years, and numbers continued to dwindle.

“Our last year of 11-man, I think we had 18 boys out for football,” said Dave Downey, who has coached at St. Phil for more than 20 years. “We were not competitive playing 11-man.

“The kids just weren’t coming out because it wasn’t fun. We were getting beat all the time.”

The school decided to go to 8-player football, and the program has thrived.

Last season, the school’s fourth playing 8-player, St. Phil finished 12-1, losing only 58-33 in the MHSAA 8-player Final to Powers North Central.

“After we went to 8-man (five years ago), we had 28 on the roster,” Downey said. “The program really grew because we went to 8-man. It actually saved the program.”

The transition was not without a few fumbles.

“We didn’t know what we were in for,” Downey said. “That first year we struggled a little bit. We ended the season 7-4, but we learned a lot.

“It was an eye-opener for us. We didn’t know what to expect.”

Although the length of the field for 8-player is still 100 yards, the width is five yards fewer on each side.

That first season, Downey said he had confidence his 8-player team could play on an 11-man regulation field – but soon found out why the field is not as wide.

“Our first year, we didn’t move the markers in and we couldn’t cover the field, especially anyone with speed who would get on the outside and go,” he said.

“Our first game, we lost bad because we thought we could play on a big field, which we couldn’t.”

This year’s nine seniors have played 8-player all four years, but it gets even better than that for St. Phil.

“They’ve actually played 10 playoff games already (over four years), so they’ve already played (the equivalent of) four seasons,” Downey said.

“This is almost like their fifth season. Experience-wise, this group of seniors is really valuable.”

Success and motivation

Last Thursday, St. Phil scrimmaged Lawrence and then Big Rapids Crossroads to get game experience before opening the season this Friday at Kingston.

“We didn’t keep score, but it went well,” Downey said. “It was good experience for some of the younger kids, especially the freshmen, to play and learn.”

He said the veterans, especially the co-captains, are like having extra coaches on the field.

“They know exactly what our schemes are and our blocking patterns and they really help us out,” he said. “Our line is coming back. We’re solid up front. 

“We have Noah Ellinger, our captain; Grant Hallacy who started last year as our other guard; Andy Forche at center and all of them played a lot last year on the line.”

Senior co-captain Grayson Obey has played football since fourth grade and said going from the traditional 11-player in Rocket youth football and middle school football to 8-player was no big deal.

“I think going from middle school to high school, not 11-man to 8-man, was harder,” he said.

Obey said last year’s success is a great motivator.

“We got a taste of a really good team last year, so it’s good motivation to work hard and try to push to get that again this year,” he said.

Ellinger agrees that the transition to 8-player was not a big deal.

“It’s two less linemen and I’m a lineman, so it’s just kind of shortening it up a little bit,” he said.

Playing both ways on the field takes some getting used to at the beginning of the season, Ellinger said.

“The first couple games it’s pretty hard,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to manage your time. It’s kind of tiring, but you get used to it.”

Downey said the parents like 8-player because “it is a little bit safer.

“We don’t have as many big kids on the field as 11-man. When you have the big kids, the little kids are the ones who seem to be getting hurt all the time.”

St. Phil lost all-state quarterback Brendan Gausselin to graduation, but Downey is eyeing sophomore Ryan Reincke and freshman Connor Gausselin for the position while senior Drew Lantinga recovers from a basketball injury.

“Last year Drew played wide receiver and linebacker,” Downey said. “He was the leading tackler on the team last year at linebacker.”

Connor Gausselin is Brendan’s brother.

“My brother played football and was pretty good, so I want to follow in his legacy,” Connor Gausselin said. “He’s helped me a lot. In every sport I play, I like being in control like a leader, so quarterback is a leader on the field and I like that.

“I’m very excited. My brother said high school football is the best part of high school, being under the Friday night lights. It will be fun.”

8-player grows statewide

Enrollment numbers are key to 8-player football in Michigan.

Of St. Phil’s 140 students, 21 are on the football team.

While Michigan has 564 schools playing 11-player, the state had 40 playoff-eligible 8-player teams last season. Currently, 48 teams are eligible for the postseason heading into this fall's first games. 

Only Class D schools are eligible for playoffs, and enrollment must be 206 or fewer this year.

Class C schools or those with larger enrollments (cutoff was 212 students for the 2015 season) may compete in 8-player but they are not eligible for postseason play.

This fall, four Class C schools are competing in 8-player: Kingston, which was Class D last year; Dryden, Rudyard and Grand Traverse Academy. The latter two fielded 11-player teams last season.

Burton Madison Academy was Class C last year but dropped to Class D this year and is now eligible for postseason play.

St. Phil plays in the Southern Michigan 8-Man League with Tekonsha, Burr Oak, Camden Frontier, Waldron and Litchfield.

Other seniors on the Tigers are Tim Minier, Mike Scriber, Ben Swagler, Alex Yacovoni and Jordan Snyder. The other juniors are Justice Steiner and Morgan Bohannon.

Other sophomores are Chris Kubasiak, JC Downey, Nolan Kersten and Brodie Landstra. Other freshmen are Marcel Williams, Charley Harrington and Gus Strenge.

Assistant coaches are Jack Brown, Marc Pessetti and Jeff Minier.

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 pamkzoo@aol.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Drew Lantinga hauls in a pass last season; he’s moving to quarterback this fall. (Middle top) Dave Downey, Noah Ellinger, Grayson Obey. (Middle below) Senior Tim Minier surges after taking a hand-off during practice earlier this month. (Below) Ben Swagler pushes ahead during the Tigers’ 2015 win over Portland St. Patrick. (Photos from 2015 courtesy of Battle Creek St. Philip; practice photo and head shots by Pam Shebest.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

December 14, 2022

LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.

Southwest Corridor“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.

John GuilleanGuillean 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.”

Great anticipation

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.

Derek GriblerGribler 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 ShebestPam 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 pamkzoo@aol.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.)