By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MARQUETTE – Hunter Nowak finished his high school career Saturday at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome as arguably the most accomplished offensive star in Morrice football history.
But he’d be the first to point out that the Orioles put the finishing touch on their first perfect and championship season because of the effort on the other side of the ball as well.
Nowak capped a three-year varsity campaign rushing 39 times for 199 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for another score as Morrice broke away for a 44-16 win over Pickford to claim the 8-Player Division 1 championship – the Orioles’ first state title in this sport. They also finished 13-0.
And his defense played a big part in making that possible, locking down a Panthers offense that entered the Final averaging 54 points per game and also unbeaten.
“I told them before, going in, ‘Boys, this is your last game. Just sell out,’” Morrice senior linebacker/fullback Connor Lucas said. “’Leave it all on the field. Do not regret it.’
“When we did the (coin) toss, and they said they wanted to receive, we were actually more happy that they wanted to receive because we knew our defense could shut them down.”
Defense has not been a hallmark of the first decade of 8-player football in Michigan. But Morrice seemed to figure it out this fall.
The Orioles gave up 78 points – a mere six per game – and from mid-September through the first week of the playoffs posted six straight shutouts.
Morrice gave up a respectable 21 points per game in going 9-2 in 2017, playing a basic 4-4 scheme. But leading tackler Lucas said this season the defense rotated through about 20 formations.
Pickford’s lowest point total this fall had been 38 points in a Week 3 win over Crystal Falls Forest Park.
“They were quick, they were strong … they were aggressive,” said Pickford junior quarterback Jimmy Storey, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season with 92 Saturday, but completed only 4 of 17 passes. “They were really aggressive and tough, and gave us a run for our money.”
Pickford junior running back Stephen LaMothe opened the scoring with a 14-yard run only 2:39 into the game.
But Nowak followed with 45 and 4-yard touchdown runs and a 15-yard scoring pass to senior Austin Edington to take a 22-8 lead into the break. “Going into the locker room at halftime, and we were up, we could definitely tell they were kinda surprised,” Lucas said.
Nowak opened the second half with another scoring run. LaMothe – who finished with 99 yards rushing on 14 carries – broke a 60-yarder at the end of the third quarter to make the score 30-16. But Edington pulled the Orioles away with 54 and 6-yard scoring runs in the fourth quarter.
Edington finished with 122 yards rushing on 10 carries as the team ran for 317 of its 353 yards total.
“Once we started the game, started gaining a little momentum, we could see some of our run plays were working better than what we thought they (would),” Morrice coach Kendall Crockett said. “We were moving the bigger men on the other team, and Hunter just made the lanes work, and Austin, and Connor was blocking and the plays work. When you design them, and they work in a game, it’s fun to watch.”
Crockett took over the program five seasons ago when Morrice switched from 11-player, and brought to the gameplan some of the spread scheme from his time as an assistant at DeWitt. “When I took over the job in 8-man football, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said. “I looked to some of the more experienced coaches – Rob McDaniel from Peck, Deckerville, you look to those different coaches to find out what worked for them. We tried their stuff, and that’s when we decided we had to go our own way and see what works for Morrice.
“We came up with the system we have today, and you know what – speed, especially out here, speed hurts.”
Morrice’s previous longest playoff run was to the Class D Semifinals in 1996. The Orioles went 9-2 three seasons ago but fell back to 4-5 in 2016 before starting a two-year climb to history.
“We’ve been dreaming of this since we were in third grade playing together,” Nowak said. “Our sophomore year, things didn’t go right. Last year we made the playoffs, we didn’t do too well. But we knew this year was the year to do it. We played every game super hard, went undefeated – just everything worked out.”
Pickford capped its third straight season of making the Semifinals with its first trip to a championship game. The Panthers will graduate just two of 18 players on Saturday’s roster. Crockett said he saw in the Panthers’ junior class the potential to do what his seniors accomplished this fall.
Senior Chase Warner had 12 tackles for Pickford, while Storey and junior Isaiah May both had 10. Senior Beau Dietz had 10 tackles to lead Morrice.
“We’re going to have to remember it, and work that much harder in the offseason,” Storey said. “We gotta come back next year and get it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Morrice’s Austin Edington dives for the end zone for one of his three touchdowns Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Orioles’ Hunter Nowak breaks past a Pickford defender. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)