Talented QB, Veteran Lineup Elevating Churchill Into League, D2 Challenger

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 22, 2021

The first item on the docket when one assesses the first half of the season for the Livonia Churchill football team is its 28-21 victory over Belleville on Sept. 10.

But turn back the pages and you'll find the success coach Bill DeFillippo and his Chargers are experiencing began during the pre-pandemic season of 2019.

Churchill (4-0) is expected to be tested again Friday when it travels to Dearborn High (3-1) in a Kensington Lakes Activities Association East game. Dearborn's loss was to Belleville (49-0). Churchill is tied with Dearborn Fordson (4-0) for first place at 3-0 in the East. Belleville (3-1) and Dearborn are a game back.

Two years ago DeFillippo started eight sophomores on a team that lost to Belleville 35-14 and finished 7-5 after a 1-4 start. Churchill was 6-3 during last year's COVID-shortened season, and expectations were high heading into this fall – especially with the return of quarterback Taj Williams.

Considered one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Detroit area, DeFillippo is in his ninth season as Churchill's head coach. The previous five seasons he was the program's offensive coordinator under coach John Filiatraut. DeFillippo cut his teeth as the offensive coordinator at Ann Arbor Huron (1990-99) under coach Paul Verska. The 1997 Huron team reached the MHSAA Class AA Final before losing to Detroit Catholic Central, 23-7.

DeFillippo continues to run the offense, and his specialty is working with quarterbacks. With Williams, he has another in a long line of talented ones.

Beginning with Seth Suda in 2011, DeFillippo coached five quarterbacks who went on to play in college (one, Drew Alsobrooks, is on the Central Michigan baseball roster). Williams is quite possibly headed toward becoming his sixth.

Williams started a few games as a sophomore at Churchill. Before his junior season, his family followed a job move to Stockbridge, Ga., (Stockbridge High School), where Williams started three games before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's recovered well from that injury and has shown improvement in his return to Churchill, particularly in the passing game. Simply, Williams makes the offense go.

Livonia Churchill footballAt 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Williams has always been a strong runner. This season he's become a true dual threat throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He's also rushed for three touchdowns, and his completion success is a tad under 70 percent.

In addition to his growth physically, Williams is playing with a chip on his shoulder. As a freshman he attended Belleville, where he was a starter on the junior varsity before transferring to Churchill. There were those who muttered that Williams feared the competition he faced at Belleville, and thus the transfer. The truth is, his family simply moved to Livonia.

“I have a lot to prove to a lot of people,” Williams said. “People doubted me. (People) said I left Belleville because I wouldn't play there.”

Williams owes his development to a handful of coaches, DeFillippo obviously included. Williams also credits his Stockbridge coach for assisting in his improvement as a pocket passer. Then there's Terrance Williams, Taj's uncle, who's the running backs coach at Churchill and has served as another mentor.

On a day-to-day basis, at practice or at home, Williams confides in DeFillippo. Take a Saturday afternoon for example. Both will be at their homes watching a college game, and they'll compare notes as to what type of offense a particular team is running. One will see a play work, and that'll start a conversation on what they can do to expand Churchill’s offense.

“(DeFillippo) has been very helpful,” Williams said. “He teaches me about the game. He breaks it down – how to learn my progressions.”

DeFillippo's shotgun spread scheme features Williams and his versatility, but there's much more to this offense that's averaging 42 points per game. Running back Boston Clegg is one of eight three-year starters, and his power running style allows Williams room to maneuver on the perimeter. Clegg started at linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons, but DeFillippo has limited his play on defense this season to keep him fresh on offense.

Josh Brown and Bailey Brooks have big-play potential at the receiver spot. The left side of the offensive line is anchored by tackle Matt Landis (6-4, 240) and guard Lawrence Nash-Martin (6-3, 285).

The defense allowed 54 points over the first two games, but has played well since. The line is loaded with experience as Demarius Gibson-Wells (DT), Kameron Balhorn (DE) and VJ Ragland (DE) are all three-year starters. Brown starts at cornerback and also returns kicks.

There are no big-time college recruits in the mix, but many of the seniors are being recruited by Division II and FCS schools.

“We have a lot of very good high school players,” said DeFillippo, a teacher in the Livonia school system since 1994. “We're a blue-collar community. We have a lot of kids who need football and love the sport.”

Churchill is ranked No. 2 in Division 2 according to the latest Associated Press poll, and DeFillippo is quick to point out that two KLAA East teams – Belleville and Fordson – are ranked in the top 10 in Division 1.

Belleville (3-1) remains the measuring stick for teams in the KLAA. The Tigers reached the MHSAA Division 1 Semifinals both of the past two seasons, losing to eventual champ West Bloomfield 35-34 in double overtime to cap last year’s extended run.

“It's (was) our fourth time playing them since they entered the KLAA four years ago,” DeFillippo said of this season’s Belleville win. “The first time we led at halftime, then lost. They jumped us in 2019 when we had all those sophomores and it was 21-14 in the fourth quarter last season.

“We have played them as well as anyone in our league. We gained a lot of confidence with that win. We executed, and our players played out of their minds.

“We know we have the target on our backs after that.”

After this week, Churchill has Livonia Franklin, Fordson and Livonia Stevenson left to play in the division before ending the regular season with a KLAA crossover. As the smallest school by enrollment in the KLAA and one of two teams (Franklin is the other) that does not compete in Division 1, Churchill is sure to benefit from the tough schedule as it prepares for the postseason.

Tom Markowski primarily covered high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. He also is a former correspondent and web content director for State Champs! Sports Network. Contact him at tmarkowski@statechampsnetwork.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Taj Williams (7) and his Churchill teammates take the field this season. (Middle) Williams’ return to the field this fall has been a big part of his team’s 4-0 start. (Photos courtesy of the Livonia Churchill football program.)

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.)