There won’t be any halftime ceremonies years from now celebrating the White Pigeon football team’s accomplishments in 2018. There’s no engraved award to display in the trophy case.
But the Chiefs’ 7-3 season certainly rejuvenated the program and its supporters.
That it will spark prolonged success remains to be seen, admitted second-year head coach Shawn Strawser, who isn’t interested in making bold predictions. What he can say with certainty is his players are committed, disciplined, physical and hungry for another taste.
Leading up to last fall, White Pigeon had just one winning season (5-4 in 2014) since its last playoff appearance in 2009, a year that resulted in a 9-2 mark with a Division 7 Pre-District win over Decatur. Last year, the schedule paired the Chiefs with what would turn out to be the top two teams in the Southwest 10 Conference during the first three weeks of the season. Losses to Centreville (22-12) and Cassopolis (28-12) sandwiched a 38-8 victory over Marcellus. But White Pigeon went on to win its final six regular-season games to qualify for the postseason, a march which included the program’s first win over Mendon in 20 years (although the Hornets got revenge in the Division 8 Pre-District round with an 8-6 win over White Pigeon).
It all happened quickly from Strawser’s perspective. When Joseph Morsaw resigned as the head coach at the end of 2017, administrators turned to Strawser and Mike Gropp — a duo with past varsity experience who had spent recent years guiding the middle school program. Strawser was just about to leave for a vacation in St. Lucia and needed to think about whether he wanted to deal with everything that comes with the top spot at the varsity level.
“I called Mike and I was like, ‘We’re going to have to do this, aren’t we?’” Strawser said. “Mike was like, ‘Yep.’
“We had a nice group of seniors. I had actually coached those kids when they were in Rocket. I knew them all real well.”
Strawser also knew he needed to do a little recruiting, starting with then-junior Stone Kemp, who turned his focus as a freshman and sophomore to leading a Bible study after school rather than playing football.
“He’s very persuasive, and so he got me back into it,” said Kemp, who finished with 398 rushing yards on 82 carries (4.9 per carry) and seven touchdowns as the Chiefs’ second back behind senior Carlos Castro in 2018. “I decided it would be a good place to be, and I think that’s where God wanted me.”
The benefits were twofold, Strawser said. It was obvious what Kemp brought to the team in terms of production, but Strawser noticed the positive impact Kemp had on his teammates as well.
“He’s a great athlete and an even better kid,” Strawser explained. “He is truly an all-around football player. Last year he played defensive end and outside linebacker. We stuck him out to cover one-on-one. This year we moved him back to safety. He has great hands and can pretty much do anything we ask him to do. He’s such a versatile player. He picked it up pretty fast for being out a couple years. He popped right back in like he didn’t miss a beat.”
To open the 2019 season, Kemp rushed for three touchdowns and returned the opening kickoff for a score in a 54-0 White Pigeon victory over Bloomingdale. He caught a touchdown pass in Week 2 in the Chiefs’ 14-8 win at Decatur, which required a goal-line stand during the final minute.
“It has been very enjoyable,” Strawser said of the program’s turnaround. “That was the whole point. On the bubble wasn’t good enough. We really wanted these kids to buy in, believe what we were doing and reap the rewards of their hard work. We preached every day mental toughness.
“Each time we had a successful game the confidence just grew. It has been a real fun ride. They were eager to do well. It paid off. We haven’t earned anything or proved anything this year yet, so we just have to keep grinding away.”
Though the Chiefs lost a ton of talent to graduation, people familiar with the program believed they could fill those voids. With 19 players on the roster, including three sophomores, the Chiefs have been able to do that, including a great effort from an offensive line that consists of a mix of experience and youth.
Captain and three-year starter Kobie DeBruine, a tackle who can play guard, sets the tone for a group that includes capable tight ends Dominick Pant – who has packed on 20 pounds of muscle since last season – and Chris Bontrager, guards Beau Freedline and Luke Gropp, and sophomore center Lane Esarey.
“That was the biggest question mark going into this season is that we were pretty young on the offensive line,” said Strawser, whose son, Lincoln Strawser, is back as a senior to guide the offense at quarterback. “They really got to work and made a lot of improvement from the scrimmage to Week 1.”
Now the Chiefs are after their first playoff victory since 2009 and fourth since 1990.
“We’re just looking for big things this year,” Kemp said. “This year I know it’s my last year to do it, so I just want to make the most out of every opportunity I get. I kind of like how people underrate us because it gives us a chance to show what we’ve got.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) White Pigeon defenders track down a ball carrier during their Week 1 win over Bloomingdale. (Middle) Stone Kemp breaks away on a long run. (Photos by John Gentry.)
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.)