TC Fans Enjoy 50 Years of Familiar Voices
October 21, 2015
By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – For 50 years, John Sonnemann and Don Wiitala have put their hearts, souls and voices into Traverse City athletics.
The two, who are still going strong, were recognized this fall for their contributions – Sonnemann as the public address announcer for Traverse City Central, Wiitala as the radio broadcaster for Traverse City St. Francis.
"It keeps us young and involved," Sonnemann said. "I think Don feels the same. We feel like we're part of the program - and that's important to us."
Credit two former football coaches/athletic directors for bringing two unmistakable voices to the microphone. Elk Rapids' Don Glowicki and Traverse City Senior High's Irv Menzel started Wiitala and Sonnemann on their journeys back in 1966.
That was the year Glowicki approached radio station WLDR, which had just gone on the air in July, about broadcasting high school sports.
"We weren't thinking about doing sports," Wiitala said. "We were just trying to keep our heads above water."
After some discussion, though, WLDR took the plunge.
"We said we'll give it a try," Wiitala recalled. "I wasn't even a broadcaster. I was the sales manager."
WLDR started covering Elk Rapids and St. Francis football that fall, and Gladiators basketball that winter. Soon after, the station began broadcasting all St. Francis football games. WTCM was covering Traverse City Senior High football and basketball, so now both schools had an outlet on radio.
It remained that way until about eight years ago when WLDR dropped its game coverage. But WLJN stepped in, picked up football, and Wiitala continued on as the Voice of the Gladiators.
"Who would have thought that 50 years later I'm still in the broadcast booth," Wiitala said. "I never realized how close I would grow to the St. Francis community. It's been a wonderful (association)."
Wiitala, 79, was inducted into the Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools Hall of Fame this month.
"Don's a class act," St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy said. "He does things the right way. He's part of our family. When you talk about St. Francis football, one of the first names to come up is Don Wiitila. He's brought St. Francis games into so many homes. We are so fortunate, so lucky for his dedication."
Back in 1966, Sonnemann had just graduated from Michigan State University when he landed a job as a social studies teacher at Traverse City Senior High. He had done his student teaching at the school the previous year and worked the chain gang during the football season – so his indoctrination into Trojans football had already started.
Soon after he was hired, Menzel called him into his office.
"He grabbed me by the knee and said, 'I want you to announce on Friday.'" Sonnemann said. "That was it."
To this day, the 72-year-old is synonymous with Traverse City Central sports.
"It's been a pleasure," the Voice of the Trojans said. "I've enjoyed all 50 years, although it doesn't seem like it's been that many,"
Sonnemann was honored for his work during the Central-West game in September.
"Remarkable," Central athletic director Mark Mattson said in describing Sonnemann's career. "The best part is that John is one of the most gentle, kind human beings that you'll ever meet. To have that legendary voice be part of your program for 50 years is special."
Sonnemann, who retired as the school's athletic director nine years ago, still announces a number of school and community events. On any given day in the fall, he can be seen and heard at Central football, soccer and volleyball games.
He said he has a hard time remembering when he retired because he's still so active doing what he loves.
"Some people would say I flunked retirement," Sonnemann said, laughing.
He, of course, does not see it that way. Neither does Wiitala. Their jobs, they say, energize them.
So when people ask how much longer they'll keep announcing, their answers are similar.
"As long as I feel good – and I do feel good – I want to keep doing it," Wiitala said. "Vin Scully (Los Angeles Dodgers announcer), what is he, 87?"
On fall weekends, Thirlby Field is their home away from home.
"We've seen a lot of great athletes, a lot of great teams, a lot of great games," said Sonnemann, who in 2001 received an Allen W. Bush Award from the MHSAA for his many unsung contributions to high school athletics.
Sonnemann recalled a game in 1970 when the Trojans lost 2-0 to Bay City Central, coached by the legendary Elmer Engel.
"They were the cream of the crop in the state," he said, "and that's where Traverse City wanted to be."
It didn't take long. Traverse City reached the inaugural MHSAA Finals in 1975, and then claimed championships in 1978, 1985 and 1988.
St. Francis was going strong in those days, too, claiming mythical state championships in 1973 and 1974. The Gladiators were able to maintain their success when the MHSAA playoffs began, capturing crowns in 1992, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009. They were MHSAA runner-ups in 1983, 1998 and 2007.
Wiitala recounted the 28-26 loss to Detroit dePorres in 1983 – the school's first trip to the Pontiac Silverdome – when the Eagles scored late to pull out the victory.
"To this day I still remember this kid from Detroit dePorres, with about a minute and a half left, laying out horizontal to catch a pass in the end zone for a TD," he said. "That play has run through my mind hundreds of times over the years. I don't know why. Had he not caught the pass, St. Francis would probably have won the game."
Sonnemann witnessed two of the most dramatic last-second wins in Trojans history – 21-20 over Muskegon Catholic in 1975 and 22-21 over Muskegon in 1985. The Muskegon game was on the road so Sonnemann was there in another role – as the advisor, he had taken the school's pep club to the game. The Big Reds had surged to a 21-14 lead on an interception return for a score in the final minute. It seemed like that would be the play that would decide this battle between the two 5-0 heavyweights.
But on the last play of regulation Central quarterback Chris Hathaway connected on a pass to Jeff Durocher, who then pitched the ball to Doug Lautner, catching the Muskegon defense by surprise. Lautner raced the final 33 yards to the end zone to pull the Trojans to within a point. Coach Jim Ooley opted to go for the win, and Hathaway hit Durocher on the winning two-point conversion.
Trojans fans who were there reveled in the win, except the bus driver.
"The bus driver had gone out to warm up the bus and missed the end of the game," Sonnemann said. "When we got on the kids were hootin' and hollerin' and just having a good time. They were so excited. The bus driver looked at me and said, 'If they're this excited after a loss I would hate to see what they would do after a win.' I had to tell him, 'We won it.' It (the suddenness of the win) felt a lot like that MSU game the other day."
Wiitala has been a fixture at the MHSAA Finals – football and basketball – covering St. Francis, as well as other area schools.
"When St. Francis got beat (in the tournament) we would pick up the next team that was going well," he said. "People in those communities appreciated that."
Wiitala said when he first started broadcasting games there were a number of radio stations doing likewise. That's not the case now.
"Stop and think about it," he said. "When St. Francis was in the North Central Conference (in the 1980s) five schools had radio stations broadcasting games. Now we hardly ever see another station at a game."
Wiitala became the majority owner of WLDR in 1972. He would remain the owner for nearly 30 years. When he sold, the station continued to broadcast St. Francis football games with Wiitala on play-by-play. He’s continued in that role now that WLJN has taken over the broadcasts.
The Mesick graduate has never strayed from the hometown feel of his broadcasts. He still conducts pre-game interviews with the coaches, profiles other school activities at half, and has several players come up to the booth for postgame interviews.
"I know people who get in their cars after the game and then turn the radio on to hear the kids (comment on the game)," he said.
WLJN also offers an internet broadcast, which allows St. Francis fans across the world an opportunity to listen. Wiitala often asks fans to send him e-mails during a game and he's always stunned when he learns the locale of his listeners.
"We've received emails from alumni in Iraq, Iran, Hawaii," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Wiitala has had numerous analysts on the broadcasts over the years. For the last five years, Sonnemann has served in that capacity when there's not a conflict with a Central home game. When there is?
"Don always says, 'John's on assignment," Sonnemann said with a chuckle.
Well, often times, Sonnemann is on assignment. Once fall sports end and winter sports begin, he'll switch to boys and girls basketball, wrestling, hockey and every so often downhill skiing. In the spring, it's on to track and field, girls soccer and graduation, which takes advance work to make sure it's done right.
"One of the things I pride myself on is pronouncing names correctly," he said. "Mine has been mispronounced enough times that I think it's important to get those names right the one time they get to shine up there on stage."
Sonnemann, who always has the best seat in the house, also takes pride in how he presents himself. He wants to make sure that he's always fair and objective.
"I try not to be partial to one team or another, although certainly I bleed black and gold," he said. "I try to call the games in as fair a manner as possible. Some announcers will try to emulate what you hear in the pros, especially the NBA, and I feel that has no place in high school sports. You should treat the visiting team as equally as you treat the home team."
Wiitala has a belief he stands by, too.
"I've never been controversial," he said. "I'm broadcasting sports about kids 15, 16, 17 years old. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, No. 88 is terrible out there.' I don't do it that way. That's not me. I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated."
Like Wiitala, Sonnemann plans to continue keeping fans abreast of who's doing what on the field, the court, the pitch, the ice, the mat, the track and the slopes.
"As long as I still enjoy it, as long as I'm still healthy, I'd like to keep doing this," he said. "I'm not setting any timetable."
For Sonnemann and Wiitala, it's 50 going on 51.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) John Sonnemann, left, and Don Wiitala provide the radio broadcast for a Traverse City St. Francis football game. (Middle) Wiitala interviews St. Francis' Luke Popp at Ford Field after the Gladiators' Division 7 championship win in 2009. (Below) Sonnemann announces a variety of Central sports played both indoors and out. (Photos courtesy of Traverse City St. Francis athletic department and Traverse City Central High School.)
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.)