By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
Football players, coaches and fans all know what it takes to produce winning teams: score a lot of points, don’t give up many, run, pass, catch and tackle.
While 11-player football is the traditional way to play the game, declining school enrollments have forced numerous schools to adjust if they want to keep offering the sport. They are learning that 8-player football requires the same things to be successful.
Crystal Falls Forest Park for decades dominated the ranks of Class D, which later became Division 8. The Trojans used a pretty simple game plan: find a stud running back, hitch their wagon to his burly shoulders and overpower any team which happened to be on the field.
Forest Park claimed the initial two Class D championships when the playoffs began in 1975 and added another title in 2007. The Trojans also won 23 Great Western Conference crowns.
But enrollment kept dropping, as it has throughout the state, and a year ago Forest Park officials decided to join the movement to 8-player football. There are 51 teams at that level this year, and nearby Felch North Dickinson, another long-time small-school power, will join the mix in 2017.
The decision was controversial when it was accepted by a 4-2 board of education vote last October, and many staunch Forest Park fans were aghast. But that apparently has cooled down, no doubt helped by a 5-1 start to this initial season.
“I don’t hear the griping of people against it,” said veteran coach and former Forest Park player Dave Graff. “The people in the know realize where our numbers are. That type of (negative) talk has gone by the wayside.
“We still have traditionalists out there who think 8-man is not football. This program is steeped in tradition, and you don’t get acceptance in one year’s time.”
The Trojans suit up 22 players for each varsity game, but nine are freshmen and sophomores who would be playing junior varsity football if Forest Park offered that level. “If we had jayvees we would not be able to function as a varsity unit,” Graff said.
The school enrollment is about 150 students this year, and Graff said he has been hearing it may drop by about 25-30 students next year. Forest Park has not fielded a full jayvee schedule for the past six years.
Even more astounding is this observation from Bill Santilli, the school’s athletic director since Aug. 1 and a former all-state running back and long-time coach: “I really fear that in the next two years Forest Park will not have a football program.”
Wow … this tradition-laden, statewide power on the threshold of no football?
Santilli added: “I’m fearful in the sense that four freshmen are playing, and we lose eight seniors. You do the math.”
He said Graff and Forest Park are being proactive and have worked with their Western Eight Conference to institute a junior high level of 8-player football and are also trying to get a grade 5-6 program started, possibly in flag football.
The school’s youth program has stayed with the 11-player game, and 2015 8-player MHSAA champion Powers North Central has kept an 11-player junior varsity. “It just doesn’t seem to be working because we’re all struggling with numbers there also,” said Santilli.
To give football a chance to hang around, he said, “We have to focus our attention on that youth level. We’re trying to build interest.”
While declining enrollment is forcing the switch to 8-player football, Santilli said, “Declining participation is probably more of a factor than it is enrollment. There are athletes in our school that in my opinion would make our football team better, but for some reason have not elected to play.”
Noting the game “nationwide is under attack,” he said it is safer now than ever because of increased improvement in equipment and extensive stress on safety. “Changes being made at every level are making the game as safe as it can be,” Santilli added.
Graff and Santilli, as players and coaches, have seen the values the sport provides.
“What are you trying to teach in football? We’re trying to teach work ethic, morals, not doing what is wrong when people aren’t watching, trying to teach character,” Graff said. “We are trying to raise people to be successful in our society and improve our society. We stress doing it right, we stress not missing the opportunity to do something good, the little things in life.
“Football is not just a rough sport. There are such great opportunities to teach things in life like discipline, teamwork, effort, enthusiasm, mental toughness, making good people.”
Santilli pointed out those lessons occur in both the 11-player game and the 8-player game. “It is still football. I’ve seen some great blocks and tackles and collisions out there,” said Santilli, who still resembles the powerful fullback who led the Trojans to their first Class D title in 1975 en route to a distinctive U.P. Sports Hall of Fame playing and coaching career.
“I don’t see that any different with 8-man; there are just fewer players.”
Santilli said some of his former teammates who now have youngsters playing have been hard to convince the switch to 8-player was necessary. “It is taking them a little bit longer to adapt to the change,” he said.
But, he said, “The players have slowly bought into the change. For them it is still the same game. There is the same excitement with the players, the same intensity when they take the field. They are just ready and waiting for the competition.”
Santilli, with his strong and successful background with the Trojans, might be the ideal observer of the switch, agreeing the game still requires athletes to make plays to stop other athletes.
“It is a different technique, a different style player more geared to open field situations (on both sides of the ball). Dave is still bringing Forest Park style football into his coaching, giving the ball to (Dan) Nocerini and powering it right at you.”
Nocerini is the latest standout back in a string of stars from Santilli and Graff who also included Mark Flood, Lee Graff, Dan Lato, Gerard Valesano and Dean Arcand. In just six games this season, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior has rushed for 1,186 yards and 20 touchdowns, highlighted by an opening-game 414 yards rushing and seven TDs.
“It is definitely a lot more open than I expected,” Nocerini said after that explosive opener at Rapid River. “Instead of beating a safety or a corner, you just have to beat one guy (downfield).”
He also said the players “have moved on. Everybody likes football; you just put your helmet on and go play.”
The acceptance of 8-player has been easier because the Trojans are as powerful as ever, losing only to North Central 60-42 in Week 2. They are averaging 56.3 points per game and allowing 28.3.
“People will see we have to go 8-man. There isn’t a choice,” Graff said. “We as coaches have come to grips with that ,and I think the community is coming to grips with it. The tradition is always there.”
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Dan Nocerini of Crystal Falls Forest Park barges through a huge hole for a four-yard touchdown against Rapid River defenders David Johnson, left, and Gavin Harris (55) in their season opener. (Middle) Parker Sundell finds some running room after getting around Rockets defender Levi Miller. (Below) Roy Hagglund of Crystal Falls Forest Park reaches for a pass as Austin Wicklund of Rapid River defends. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
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.)