Three Rivers Takes Run at District Together

October 31, 2017

By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half

J.J. Wagner is economical with his words, stoic on the sideline, and not preoccupied with statistical trends. All he really asks of his Three Rivers football players is to play and sacrifice for one another.

It’s been a pretty good recipe throughout his 13-year tenure as the head varsity coach of the Wildcats, at least in the years when the players truly held up their end of the bargain. With an 82-50 career record since 2005, Wagner has seen what can happen when everyone is pulling in the same direction, like a 13-0 run that ended with a loss in the 2009 Division 4 Final.

He’s also witnessed how complacency can cut a program right back down, as was the case in 2010 when an experienced Three Rivers squad went 4-5 and missed the postseason.

The Wildcats have been noticeably hungrier the last two years, with a 7-3 mark in 2016 and an 8-2 record this year as they prepare for Friday’s Division 4 District championship game against Edwardsburg.

Eleven games into the year, Three Rivers has been unable to break out of a Wolverine Conference bubble. The Wildcats went 7-2 in the league, with losses to Dowagiac (Week 2) and Vicksburg (Week 9). Revenge was sweet last Friday as Three Rivers beat Vicksburg in the Pre-District game (20-10).

Now, the difficult task of beating the league’s most dominant team for the second time in one year is what’s required to move on in the playoffs. If Three Rivers can beat the Eddies (after also doing so 21-18 in Week 7), there’s a chance they’ll face Wolverine Conference member Plainwell in the Regional Round.

“You get through the Wolverine (schedule) and then you’re suddenly in a mini Wolverine tournament,” Wagner joked.

There are no secrets in terms of playoff prep against such familiar foes, so it’s all about the basics.

“Our offense has been moving the sticks, our defense has been playing well, our special teams have played well and we play well when we don’t turn the ball over,” he said.

Having played for perennial power Mendon, where he registered 253 tackles as an outside linebacker during the 1987-89 seasons, Wagners’ emphasis on that side of the ball has been a hallmark of the 2017 campaign. Three Rivers has only allowed 11.7 points and 203 yards per game. The Wildcats have stopped opponents on third down 79.8 percent of the time.

A lot of that has to do with big and athletic senior defensive end Tirrell Hausmanis (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), senior defensive tackle Tyler Moore (5-11, 235) and the linebacker duo of senior Chris Morrill (5-10, 160) and Traven Van Oss (6-1, 165). That group alone has accounted for 34.5 tackles for loss this season. Morrill and Van Oss are tied for a team-best 61 tackles.

“Anytime you’re playing good defense, you can take a few more chances on offense,” Wagner said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve gone for it on fourth down this year, but it’s probably more than most (years). You can take a chance at midfield or the 40 that maybe you wouldn’t normally.”

Perhaps no player has embraced Wagner’s rule of doing what’s best for the team more than Hausmanis, who likely would have garnered a lot more attention from college coaches had he stayed at tight end. Instead, he’s anchored both lines the past two seasons.

“We all just do our jobs,” he said. “This happened and we weren’t big enough (on the offensive line) for me to play tight end. They needed me at tackle. At first I didn’t really like it, but I had to get used to it because it was what was best for the team. It helped us succeed and win, so I had to do it.”

His defensive stats might not seem that impressive — 30 tackles with two sacks — but it’s what he’s capable of that impacts the game so severely.

“It helps when you know people are going to run away from (Hausmanis), so you can stunt and play games on the other side that can mess with their protections and blocking schemes,” Wagner said.

Wagner admitted he’s not big on stats, but for those who were wondering about how many times the offense has felt comfortable gambling on fourth down because of a belief in the defense, it’s 27. The Wildcats have converted 15 times (55.6 percent).

Other than knowing the defense could likely bail it out if needed, there’s been plenty of confidence in the offense under the leadership of junior quarterback Jalen Heivilin.

With a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, an average of 214.6 passing yards per game and a completion rate of 61 percent, the first-year starter has settled in nicely. Classmate Gavin Charvat has been Heivilin’s favorite target as the two have connected 42 times for 562 yards and six touchdowns. Bryce Morlan was next in line with 32 receptions for 549 yards and a team-high 11 TDs, but the senior went down in Week 9 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Fortunately for the Wildcats they also have reliable receivers in Jett Haifley and Zac Meyer; each has hauled in 23 passes for around 400 yards.

“When we play mistake-free, which is what we harp on, and eliminate pre- and post-snap penalties, you can win a lot of games,” Wagner said. “That’s what we focus on every week. If you can do that, you’re going to keep yourself in a lot of games.”

That was exactly the difference in Three Rivers’ home win against Edwardsburg on Oct. 6, which snapped a 34-game Wolverine Conference winning streak by the Eddies.

“We have to play with that same energy and effort (against Edwardsburg),” Wagner added. “In both of our losses, we came out kind of flat. If I knew why, we wouldn’t do it. We think we can go in there (at Edwardsburg) and play them tough again. It boiled down to mistakes in that (first meeting). We made our extra points, and we held them on all theirs. If we go in there with the same discipline, there’s no reason we can’t beat them again.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Three Rivers’ defense lines up for a play; it’s been stifling this season giving up only 11.7 points per game. (Middle) Receiver Nolan Mark and quarterback Jalen Heivilin (4) talk things over against Edwardsburg. (Photos courtesy of

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast 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. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.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.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. 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.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “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.”

Bramer agreed.

“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 SpencerTom 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 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.)