Traverse City Neighbors Chase 9-0

October 21, 2015

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – It hasn’t happened here in 30 years.

But this weekend Traverse City Central and St. Francis can put the wraps on 9-0 regular seasons, marking the first time two Traverse City football teams have accomplished that feat in the same season since 1985. Traverse City Senior High – before the school was split – won the Class A state championship that year.

"We know both our programs have a good thing going," Central athletic director Mark Mattson said. "Regardless of what school you're at, you want the other Traverse City programs to be successful, too. Right now we appreciate where we are. We're enjoying the ride."

So is St. Francis, where coach Josh Sellers, back for his second stint, is hoping an amazing trend continues. The Gladiators have made just four coaching changes in the last 42 years. In the first year after each coaching change, St. Francis is a combined 44-1 with three MHSAA Finals championships – and now the possibility of a fourth.

It all started in 1974 – the year before the playoffs began – when Larry Sellers took over an 8-1 program from Waldo Keating and finished 9-0 en route to a Class D mythical state championship. The beat continued in 2003 when Josh Sellers inherited a 10-2 team from his Hall of Fame father and went 14-0 in capturing the Division 7 crown. When Sellers moved to Tennessee after a 12-2 season in 2007, Greg Vaughan came aboard and led the Gladiators to a 13-1 mark and another Division 7 title.

Now, Sellers is back as head coach and St. Francis is riding high with an 8-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press’ Division 7 poll.

"This team is very workmanlike, very similar to the 2003 team," Sellers said. "We don't have a lot of vocal leaders, but we have kids who like to play for each other and that's half the battle."

Across town, another change is producing impressive results. First-year head coach Eric Schugars’ Traverse City Central Trojans are 8-0 and ranked No. 7 in this week's Associated Press Division 2 poll. Schugars served as defensive coordinator for four years under Tom Passinault, who stepped down after a successful eight-year run.

"Going 9-0 is hard to do, but we're pretty excited about having that opportunity," Schugars said.

There are links between the St. Francis and Central programs. Former Gladiators standout and assistant coach Greg Sherwin is now the offensive line coach at Central. His two sons are the starting tackles. Two former Central head coaches, Joe Forlenza and Passinault, are assistants at St. Francis. Forlenza is the long-time defensive coordinator for the Gladiators while Passinault joined the staff this season as defensive line coach.

In addition, 16 players from the two teams – including the starting quarterbacks, St. Francis' Joe Coates and Central's Reagan Cotton – were teammates on a Pop Warner squad coached by Sherwin and Rick Coates. Joe Coates and Cotton also trained together in the Popp Quarterback Tutor Camp for seven years.

The two seniors direct entirely different offenses. St. Francis relies on a potent ground game, Central likes to air the ball out in its wide-open spread attack.

Sellers added some new wrinkles to the Gladiators’ offense, but he's not deviating from what's been the program's staple.

"It's still old fashioned St. Francis smashmouth football," Sellers said. "We're going to run the football, control the line of scrimmage and control the clock."

The Gladiators average 327 rushing yards a game. Joe Trucco and Jacob Klingelsmith are picking up nearly 11 yards per carry. Trucco has a team-high 835 yards, Klingelsmith 686.

Coates is efficient when the Gladiators take to the air. Of his 20 completions, nine are for touchdowns.

"Joe does a great job making decisions, getting the ball to the right receiver," Sellers said.

St. Francis is averaging nearly 50 points a game. The defense, led by Gabe Callery and Tyler Picardat, is surrendering just 7.5 points a contest. The team's signature win is a 32-13 triumph over 7-1 Boyne City, which snapped the Ramblers 13-game regular-season win streak. The score was 7-7 at the half.

"That was such a battle," Coates said. "Both teams played hard. That (second half) was probably the one moment where I've seen our team reach a level of greatness. But I don't think we've reached our full potential just yet."

Sellers agreed. He said his team is improving every week.

St. Francis returned a strong nucleus from a team that went 9-3 last season, so the 8-0 start is not a surprise.

"The team expected it," Sellers said. "A lot of people around the team expected it after having made a push into the third round of the playoffs (last season) and having only two regular-season losses, both in overtime. I think the kids were hungry to work hard this summer and come back and try to prove those losses were flukes. These kids have high expectations."

Those high expectations come based on the long-term success of the program, Coates said. St. Francis has won 76 percent of its games since it started playing football in 1951. In the last 13 years, the Gladiators have reached the MHSAA Finals five times, winning four titles.

"It's crazy to look back at it," Coates, a one-time waterboy for the team, said. "You're brought up in an atmosphere where success is almost the only option. When you think of St. Francis football, you think of winning (games) and winning state championships."

It's been a rather seamless transition for Sellers, thanks in part to a veteran coaching staff that includes Jim Carroll, who’s been with the Gladiators 51 years. In his first stint, Sellers was 57-7 with two MHSAA crowns in five years.

"The biggest hurdle was I didn't know the kids and they didn't know me," he said.

Sellers, 41, was hired in March to replace Vaughan, who had coached the Gladiators the last seven years and had also won two titles.

"Greg (Vaughan) did such a great job for us the time he was here," St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy said. "To our seniors, Greg Vaughan was St. Francis football. It did take some time for Josh to get to know the kids and for the kids to understand who he is and what he believes in. That was done very quickly. From my perspective, it was like Josh had never left. He's done a fantastic job. There is a sense of calm, a sense of determination and a sense of pride that he brings (to the program)."

St. Francis hosts 5-3 Kingsley on Saturday. The last time the Gladiators went undefeated in the regular season was 2009. Coates was at Ford Field that year when the Gladiators captured the championship. In fact, he was there in 2008 and 2005, too.

"I'm hoping to make my own trip this year," he said.

An 8-0 start might not raise eyebrows at St. Francis, but it has come as a mild surprise at Central. Petoskey and Traverse City West were considered the favorites in the Big North Conference, but the youthful Trojans rallied to win both those showdowns in overtime. Central was down 21-0 at halftime at Petoskey.

Schugars said one of his first objectives as head coach was to develop the character of his team and get the players to believe in themselves. He said that was a key in creating a winning mentality.

"There's a certain edge you have to play with," he said. "You don't want to go out there and see what happens. You want to go out there expecting to win. It's about creating high expectations amongst our players. We're trying to set standards of excellence. Our kids have certainly done a good job buying in."

Schugars said the players worked hard, starting in the winter, to prepare for this season. Cotton, who took over as the starting quarterback late last season, became the catalyst as Central made changes in its offense, implementing a fast-paced no-huddle system.

"He's steady, he's poised," Schugars said of Cotton. "He has a calming influence on our team."

He's accurate, too. Cotton's completed 96 of 147 passes (65 percent) for 1,337 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's thrown just three interceptions. 

He's also spread the ball around. Playmaker Devante Walker leads the team with 28 receptions, five for touchdowns. Walker's averaging nearly 17 yards a catch. Griffin Cencer's pulled in 22 receptions and Terrell Solberg 19.

John Pupel and Walker lead the ground game. Pupel's rushed for 612 yards and 13 touchdowns, Walker 474 yards and seven scores.

Schugars credits the offensive line of tackles Ben and Sam Sherwin, guards Jacob Steelman and Brendan Arnold and center Alex Windholz for giving Cotton time to pass and the backs room to roam.

"We're riding them and they know it," he said.

The defense is anchored by Pupel at strong safety, Fitz Doud at inside linebacker and senior ends Zach Mayo and Max Franz.

The two overtime wins were milestones in the season and showed the team’s resolve, especially the comeback win at Petoskey when the outcome looked dire with Central down 21 points.

"We challenged the kids at halftime," Schugars said. "We needed a break in that game and we got one, a turnover and we scored quickly after that. Right then you could feel the momentum changing. It was like this is our game. That's all it took. It goes back into believing in each other."

"We were disappointed in ourselves (the first half)," Cotton added. "We knew we could play better. Coach told us to take it one play at a time, go out and give 100 percent each play."

Never looking too far ahead has been a theme with this team.

"Going into a season every team wants to go 9-0," Cotton said. "The biggest thing for us is that we've taken it one game at a time."

Central is a young team that relies heavily on a talented junior class. Although Pupel, Walker and Ben Sherwin were mainstays on the varsity as sophomores, Schugars didn't know how long it would take for the team to jell.

Turns out, it didn't take long. Now the Trojans, if they can beat Cadillac on Friday, are on the brink of accomplishing something that hasn't been done since 1988 – a perfect regular season.

"And we all know what happened that year (a state championship)," Schugars said.

It's been quite a start for the 38-year-old Schugars, whose father Jack is in the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Even his father didn't go 9-0 his first year. He went 6-3 at Muskegon Oakridge.

"That's about all (I have on him)," Eric Schugars said, laughing. "I'm a proud son, proud of what he's done. If I can (achieve) half of what he's done, it will be a success."

Mattson said the players instantly took to Schugars.

"We brought the football players into the cafeteria when we made the announcement," he said. "They roared (with approval). That indicated he had their support.

"The kids and his staff have worked hard for him and that's a sign of a good coach, a good leader. It's been extremely fun to watch."

Mattson said Schugars' character has had a positive impact on the players.

"Eric is such a good person and family man, and a fantastic teacher," he said. "It's who Eric is as a person, even more so than a coach, that's impressive. They (players) know him as a person. They know he cares."

Central honored the 1975 and 1985 teams at last Friday’s game with West Branch Ogemaw Heights. Now, that 1985 season could come up again this weekend.

"9-0 would be a big deal for us," Cotton said.

It would be for St. Francis, too.

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 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) A Traverse City Central ball-carrier drags a defender toward the goalline, left, and a St. Francis player appears to signal his team's possession of the ball. (Middle) The St. Francis defense lines up during a game this season. (Below) A Central ball-carrier runs away from would-be tacklers. (Photos courtesy of Traverse City Central and Traverse City St. Francis.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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 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.)