By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
This is not your father’s Muskegon Mona Shores football team.
Or even your older brother’s.
This is not the team that went its first 51 years of football without making the MHSAA playoffs and whose only traffic jams leaving its parking lot occurred early in the third quarter – when the band was done performing.
Heading into one of the state’s marquee Week 3 matchups at home against perennial Division 1 powerhouse Rockford, Shores is looking to snap a 10-game losing streak against the Rams, which has included some forgettable affairs like a 49-7 loss in 2000 and 10-7 loss last fall, the Sailors’ lone regular-season defeat.
“Great job tonight,” Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak told his huddled players last Thursday night, allowing them a few seconds to enjoy their 2-0 start and a dominating 55-14 win over host Fruitport, before quickly shifting gears.
“But now we have Rockford coming to our place. We can’t make the mistakes we made tonight, or they will make us pay for it. We have to play top-notch.”
The emergence of Mona Shores as a power has changed the landscape of football, not only in the Muskegon area, but West Michigan as a whole. As other Muskegon-area schools struggle with declining enrollment – most notably Muskegon High, Muskegon Heights and Muskegon Catholic Central – Mona Shores is now the largest school in Muskegon County and a legitimate force, bursting onto the state scene with a memorable run to last year’s Division 2 championship game at Ford Field.
After putting up 55 points in back-to-back wins over Holland West Ottawa and Fruitport to open the season (and with their defense not allowing a single point), the Sailors are showing that the 2014 season was far from a flash in the pan.
“Last year we were the hunters; now we’re the hunted,” explained senior quarterback Tyler Trovinger, who set a school record with six TD passes in the Week 2 win over Fruitport. “We have to be great because no one is looking past us anymore.”
The Sailors’ fortunes, and attitudes, began to change in 2011 with the hiring of Koziak as head football coach. He turned out to be the perfect choice, as a 1994 Mona Shores graduate who cut his coaching teeth at Muskegon High School under Tony Annese, serving as offensive coordinator when the Big Reds won MHSAA titles in 2006 and 2008 and as head coach for one year in 2009.
His words upon taking the Mona Shores job in 2011 were prophetic:
“I'm tired of people badmouthing my school,” Koziak told The Muskegon Chronicle at that time. “I’ve heard people say the Shores kids are cake-eaters. It’s not true. There are a lot of blue-collar kids and families there. I’m excited to change the football culture.”
While Koziak knew Shores football history, he also was smart enough to recognize changes that needed to be made – beginning with the installation of the spread option, veer attack which was so effective across town at Muskegon High.
The most notable player was quarterback Tyree Jackson, who Koziak inserted into the starting lineup as a 5-foot-9 freshman. After struggling mightily and making people question whether the new coach was running the wrong system, Jackson sprouted to 6-4 and started throwing to targets like Asantay Brown and Marquon Sargent.
Brown is now a starting safety at Western Michigan University, Sargent is at Grand Valley State University and Jackson is a freshman quarterback at the University of Buffalo, but the Mona Shores system and the athletes haven’t missed a beat.
Trovinger (5-11, 200 pounds) has stepped into Jackson’s big shoes and possesses a cannon for an arm and terrific running ability.
Trovinger’s passing options are nothing short of an embarrassment of riches. Three of the starters in the Sailors’ four-wide attack have already made Division I college commitments – Hunter Broersma (6-2, 190) and Darece Roberson (5-9, 165) to Western Michigan and Kobe Burse (6-3, 205) to Miami of Ohio – with the fourth starter being dangerous Deandre Oakes-Owens (6-0, 175), an all-league selection as a defensive back last season.
“We have a ton of weapons, no doubt,” Trovinger said. “When we’re all focused, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
The defense is led by two more senior standouts who could possibly sign with Division I schools. Dom Shermeta (6-0, 215) is a Chris Spielman clone at middle linebacker and a battering-ram fullback, and Christian Boyd (6-2, 280) is a run-stuffer at left defensive tackle.
Koziak said a big part of the Shores turnaround is the supportive administration, notably seventh-year athletic director Ryan Portenga, the outspoken, energetic and unapologetic leader of the Shores athletic program.
Portenga has written a book about the Mona Shores football turnaround and the storybook 2014 season, entitled: “Flipping Football: A True Story of Resilience and Transformation.” The book, which costs $20, will be released Friday, in conjunction with the Rockford game.
“It’s a story that needed to be told,” said Portenga, who noted that half of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Shores athletic program.
So … with all of this talent, all this excitement, all this momentum (even a book!), are the Sailors ready to take the next step and knock off the biggest kid on the block – Rockford? Or will the Rams’ mystique win out again?
It’s the same question Muskegon-area residents were asking last October, when the upstart Sailors traveled to historic Hackley Stadium to face the Big Reds, which had downed Shores 14 games in a row. Shores matched the athletes for Muskegon and made believers out of many in a convincing 48-27 victory.
While every eye in Muskegon was on that game, many eyes from around the state will now be on Sailor Stadium when a senior-laden Rockford team comes to town Friday, looking to swat away the latest challenger to its perch atop the West Michigan football heap.
Rockford (1-1) is coming off a 47-0 romp over visiting Holt, and will bring its usual big offensive line, bevy of running backs and unparalleled special teams – especially senior kicker and punter Quinn Nordin, who has committed to sign with Penn State University.
The Rams have extra motivation as coach Ralph Munger has 299 career coaching victories over his 36-year career, the first 12 spent at Frankenmuth and the past 24 at Rockford. His next win would make him the 11th coach in state history to register 300 wins.
Shores is not motivated to deny Munger, but rather to avenge last year’s 10-7 loss at Rockford. In that game, Roberson scored on a 79-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, but failed to score again, fumbling twice in the fourth quarter.
With a huge crowd expected for the rematch, Koziak said his players will be motivated to come out and not let another game against the Rams slip away.
“We talked about how Rockford beat us last year,” said Koziak, who is assisted on the varsity level by Brian Sikkenga, Holsey James and Aaron James, Chris Hilliker and Kyle Brott. “They have that in the back of their minds that they let one get away, and that’s motivation for them.
“I think there’s a new energy for football with what we’ve been able to build the last four years. The community has waited forever for this. They’re ecstatic.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mona Shores’ Darece Roberson strides for additional yardage during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Final against Warren DeLaSalle. (Middle) Tyler Trovenger, surrounded by teammates, celebrates his third-quarter touchdown catch at Ford Field. He moved to quarterback this fall.
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“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.
Guillean 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.”
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.
Gribler 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)