By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Getting to the postseason wasn’t the issue for the Cassopolis varsity football program, which is currently ranked No. 6 in the latest Associated Press Division 7 poll and has earned playoff berths 11 times since 2000.
It was taking that next step.
Now in his fifth year guiding the program, head coach Dan Purlee, a Cassopolis graduate, former athlete and longtime assistant coach, helped push the school past that barrier. And 2016 was the program’s banner year.
The Rangers ripped through all their opponents last season except for a talented Buchanan squad in Week 5. Throughout their 8-1 run during the regular season, the Rangers were on the right side of a 365-130 scoring differential. They went on to outscore their first three playoff foes 141-49.
Cassopolis, which also boasted a 4-0 mark to win the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference Red championship, finished last year 11-2 with a 54-22 loss to Detroit Loyola in the Division 7 Semifinals.
Just a year earlier, Cassopolis recorded a 9-3 record in 2015, falling to Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional round. The Rangers’ 48-14 victory against Bridgman that fall earned the program its first District championship.
“We’ve put together a few good years here,” said Purlee, whose team, led by six returning seniors, is 6-0 heading into Friday’s game against Southwest 10 Conference opponent Hartford. “We’re playing pretty good football, but you always feel like there’s room for improvement, and there is. But we like where we’re at this year, and we’re proud of our success and accomplishments over the previous few years.”
Purlee doesn’t easily accept the credit. He promptly shifted the focus to the student-athletes and his astute assistants, including Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Jim Myers, who has 42 years of coaching under his belt and previously was the head coach at Niles Brandywine. And there’s also Steve Green, who has been coaching alongside Purlee at Cassopolis the last 18 years.
“We’ve done it together,” Purlee said. “Your coaching buddies — it goes beyond coaching. They’re like your brothers.”
Cassopolis athletics director Matt Brawley had high praise for Purlee.
“He’s a professional,” Brawley said. “He’s extremely detailed and has a game plan for every situation. He’s very impressive to watch.”
Brawley also pointed out that, with a current team grade-point average of 3.40, a second consecutive academic all-state award is on the horizon.
Running the full house T formation offense, no one player has had to carry the load. Statistical information was only available through the Rangers’ first five games, but senior Brandon Anderson and junior Tyrese Hunt-Thompson had combined for nearly 500 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Xander Smith had rushed for more than 250 yards with a couple passing touchdowns as well.
Junior Hunter Parsons had rushed for 266 yards through five contests, and quarterback Dylan Green has been responsible for four passing TDs. Keep in mind, most of the starters have watched the second half from the sideline most of the year with games well in hand.
“We have the ability to run a little shotgun spread,” Purlee said. “We’re pretty diverse offensively. Teams were really loading up the box on us and we’re not traditionally very big up front, so we realized we were going to need to counter that with spreading the field a little bit.
“We’ve just had a stretch here where we’ve had some kids who are extremely athletic and can catch the ball and quarterbacks that can throw the ball. We can pound it up the middle and also spread you out.”
Defensively, freshman outside linebacker Ahsan Hart boasts 33 tackles and a pair of sacks, senior Kyjuan Lanier, a captain at middle linebacker, has 29 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries; and junior defensive end Skyler McKee has recorded 28 tackles with two sacks.
“We’re all comfortable with each other,” Lanier, a three-year varsity player, said. “It’s trust. I feel like if I don’t make a play, I’ve got Hunter Parsons right next to me coming up to make the tackle. Our secondary likes to come up and make plays. Our lines are disciplined.
“When I was younger, it was more coming downhill, filling holes and blitzing. As I’ve gotten older, it is recognizing where the ball is going, watching linemen, seeing what they’re doing, watching a pulling guard … getting smarter rather than just running to the play.”
The Rangers, who have given up only 28 points all year, pin their ears back and keep the pressure on every snap.
“I think there are several factors,” Purlee said of his program’s building success. “We’ve had some really good players over the past few years, and we have some athletic and tough kids. When you have that, you can put together a pretty good football team. I feel like our coaches have done a great job in helping instill discipline. It’s a team that executes in all phases of the game. We work hard, and we’re well prepared. It’s a collaborative effort between good players, good coaches and the right type of kids.”
Instead of being content, having tasted this kind of success has only intensified the team’s appetite.
“They have been a committed group. They’re extremely focused,” Purlee added. “Obviously, we’re proud of what we’ve done the last two years, but we want to go further. We’re not going to limit our goals. The next step for us is to play in Ford Fieldhouse.
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Casspolis' Tyrese Hunt-Thompson (2) follows his blockers into the line against Marcellus last week. (Middle) Rangers coach Dan Purlee confers with one of his linemen on the sideline. (Photos by Billie Austin.)
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.)