Understudy Shines as Shores' Lead Receiver

October 31, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

The understudy has become the star for the Muskegon Mona Shores football team.

James Gilbert was supposed to be “the other guy” this season, the receiver on the opposite side from Division I recruit Damari Roberson, who has committed to Western Michigan University.

But the cast list changed in June when Roberson, a 3.6 GPA student who at one time had more than 17 college football scholarship offers, tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time in nine months during a non-contact drill.

“That’s when everything changed,” explained Gilbert, who always had considered himself a basketball player on the football field. “The coaches and Damari sat me down and told me that I had to be the man, that I was the only one with the same type of ability that could take his place. They basically challenged me.”

Shores coach Matt Koziak said Gilbert, a 6-foot-2, 181-pound senior, has always had the physical skills. But since Roberson went down this summer, he has been focused, motivated and driven like never before.

The result has been an incredible senior season for Gilbert, who has 51 catches for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns. His emergence as one of the top receivers in the state enabled the Sailors to climb all the way to No. 1 in Division 2 in the final Associated Press state rankings.

Mona Shores (9-1) will put its top ranking to the test Friday night in the MHSAA District championship game against visiting Ottawa-Kent Conference Black rival Jenison (7-3). The two teams engaged in a shootout just three weeks ago, with the visiting Sailors escaping with a 49-42 victory.

Gilbert played a huge role in that win, with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, coming up big once again when his team needed it most.

“JG has been unbelievable all year,” said Koziak, who has a 60-26 record in eight years as the Sailors’ coach, highlighted by a run to the Division 2 title game in 2014. “With all of the injuries we’ve had, he’s kind of been the one constant. When we’re scratching our heads, we can always throw it up to James.”

Coming into the season, Koziak knew he had senior battering ram running back Sincere Dent (5-11, 217), who has delivered with 118 carries for 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns. The problem is that Dent has played in only seven games and his playing time was reduced in several others due to shoulder and ankle injuries.

Junior quarterback Caden Broersma (6-3, 206) also has been outstanding, completing 81-of-112 passes (72 percent) for 1,547 yard and 13 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also has rushed for 621 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The most surprising statistic for Mona Shores is that Gilbert has accounted for 76 percent of the Sailors’ receiving yards.

“I’m not surprised, because he’s always had it in him,” said Roberson, who has remained a key part of the team, attending every practice and serving as another assistant coach for Koziak. “I always learned from him in basketball, and I taught him everything he knows about football. With me being out, he’s had more of a chance to show what he can do.”

Gilbert is starting to garner more and more interest from college football programs, with Saginaw Valley State, Ferris, Davenport and Mount Union (Ohio) showing the most thus far.

Gilbert wasted no time proving he would be “the man,” showing his big-play ability with five catches for 159 yards (32 yards per catch) and a touchdown in a big 48-38 win over East Kentwood in the season-opening Gridiron Classic at Grand Valley State University. East Kentwood hasn’t lost a game since.

He also came up big in the cross-town showdown Oct. 12 against unbeaten Muskegon, which is ranked No. 1 in Division 3. Gilbert caught six passes for 118 yards, including a one-handed, 28-yard touchdown grab. He also threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Swick on a trick play in that 55-35 loss.

And Gilbert was at it again in last week’s narrow 34-28 District win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, catching five passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. He sealed the win with an interception as the Rangers were driving for a potential game-winning score in the final minute.

“It’s been fun, but we know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Gilbert, who has impressed opposing coaches with his ability to come down with big catches in traffic. “Damari and I have been playing with each other and against each other since Little League, so I kind of feel that I’m playing for him this season.”

As for Roberson, he still believes that a season that began with a nightmare injury could have a storybook ending – both for the team and himself.

Roberson (6-2, 194) said his rehabilitation is going great and his possible return date from the injury is during the week of the MHSAA Semifinals. So there remains the possibility, if the team keeps winning, that Roberson and Gilbert could line up as opposite wideouts, like the original plan.

“Stay tuned,” said Roberson, who is on pace to graduate early in December and then enroll at WMU in January. “After all that this team has been through, with all of the injuries, that would be the perfect ending.”

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 kendra.tom@gmail.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Mona Shores senior James Gilbert makes a one-handed catch for a 28-yard touchdown on a pass from Caden Broersma early in the second quarter Oct. 12 at Muskegon. (Middle) Damari Roberson returns a punt last year as a junior against Reeths-Puffer. Roberson has not played this season due to a knee injury. (Photos by Eric Sturr.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net 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) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)