By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – November has become a regular part of the Grand Rapids West Catholic football schedule. Trips to Detroit are turning into a Thanksgiving weekend tradition.
But what the Falcons accomplished again Saturday was not lost on them.
Grand Rapids West Catholic won its fifth MHSAA football championship and became just the sixth school to win four straight, downing familiar playoff foe Menominee 43-7 in the Division 5 Final at Ford Field.
“There’s no word to describe it. Year after year, competing like that, getting to play 14 games – we’re very, very lucky and blessed,” said senior Sam Neville, who with David Fox played on all four champions. “That’s double what most people get to play over the course of their high school careers.”
This string was as impressive as any of the other three, for a few reasons.
West Catholic finished 12-2, despite playing without junior quarterback Gaetano Vallone for six weeks after he injured an elbow on opening night.
The Falcons, with a Week 3 loss to Zeeland West and a Week 9 defeat to Allendale, were then forced to play all of their playoff games on the road. They navigated a path highlighted by previously undefeated Portland, handed second losses to Lansing Catholic and Algonac and also beat another league champion in Berrien Springs.
They did so under the leadership of a new coach. Joe Hyland was hired this spring after the resignation of Dan Rohn, who had led the team to the first three titles of this streak. Hyland had been highly successful coaching in South Carolina before coming to West Catholic as a teacher and guidance counselor in fall 2015, but as with any change, there was a transition.
And then there was that Finals familiarity. The Falcons defeated the Maroons in 2013’s Division 5 Final to start this streak, and also in a Semifinal in 2014 and Regional Final last fall. It would be hard to find two high school programs 450 drive miles apart that know each other more.
“There’s a lot of people in our community and even statewide who talked about ‘November, November,’ but our discussions were always about today,” Hyland said. “And just feeling like if you do the right thing now, the rest will work out. And if we get beat by a good team on our best day, then you shake their hand and look them in the eye and congratulate them. But we really felt like on our best day, that wasn’t going to happen.”
Saturday had to be one of them.
Junior kicker Liam Putz started the scoring just 2:41 into the game with an MHSAA Finals-record 47-yard field goal, a yard longer that Josh Wuerful’s for Traverse City High against Detroit Catholic Central in the 1988 Class A championship game.
By the end of the first quarter, Vallone had thrown two touchdown passes. By halftime, he’d connected on four. The first, a 91-yarder to senior Brett Myers, was the fourth longest pass play in Finals history.
Vallone finished 13 of 20 passing for 311 yards, the fifth most in Finals history. He spread the ball nicely with five receivers catching at least one pass; Neville had six catches for 117 yards and two scores, Meyers three for 143 yards and his long touchdown and senior Aaron Hall caught four balls for 66 yards and the other passing TD.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound quarterback also ran for a team-high 83 yards and a score on 13 carries. His 394 total yards rank sixth on the Finals all-time list.
Menominee did achieve a little history as well. In addition to playing in their fifth Final, the Maroons scored their points on a 76-yard blocked field goal return by senior Hunter Hass – the first blocked field goal return touchdown in Finals history. The kick was blocked by senior Sam Larson, and Hass picked up the loose ball and ran down the left sideline for the score.
“All week we were practicing to block their punt, and it just so happened that we blocked their field goal,” Hass said. “I saw the ball. I just picked it up and ran into the end zone, just trying to get some points to get some momentum going for our team.”
But the rest of the afternoon was a struggle. The Maroons (12-2) gained only 163 yards and tied a Finals record held by two others teams with seven turnovers – three coming on fumbles.
They also played once more without all-state tailback Keifer Rasner, who missed the end of the season with an injury.
“When you turn the ball over that many times to a good team, you don’t have much of a shot,” Menominee coach Joe Noha said. “But I’m really proud of my guys. We really hung in there. We’ve had a lot of things happen in the last couple of weeks, but I’m really pleased with our effort and our fortitude to get here. And once you get here, finishing is difficult. Today was not our day.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Zane Timmer tries to break away from a Menominee tackler Saturday in the Division 5 Final. (Middle) Falcons coach Joe Hyland raises the championship trophy.
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 email@example.com 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.)