Jason Mensing insists that when he showed up at Ottawa Lake Whiteford a decade ago he had thoughts of a state championship on his mind.
It seemed a tall task. The Bobcats had enjoyed pockets of success throughout school history but had just won just five playoff games and one conference football championship over the previous 45 years.
Still, the Tecumseh native and former Adrian College football player was determined.
“We believed if we could imprint our system and develop a strength program and teach the fundamentals and continue to grow, we’d have success,” Mensing said.
The formula was magic. Whiteford went 8-2 that first season under Mensing and tied a school record with nine wins in Year 2. By 2015, the Bobcats were in the MHSAA Semifinals for the first time. In 2016, Whiteford played at Ford Field for the first time. In 2017, Whiteford won a Division 8 championship. The Bobcats were a combined 93-24 during his decade running the program, including 11-2 this past fall.
“The reality is we do believe in our system,” Mensing said.
After 10 years, Mensing announced this week that he would be taking his system elsewhere. He will become the next head football coach at Westland John Glenn, a Class A school west of Detroit. The Rockets haven’t had much success in recent years, but school officials are excited to have Mensing on board.
“I’m excited to see what Jason can bring to our school and our program,” said John Glenn Principal Eric McCalla. “He is a culture builder. That’s one of the things we need here.”
McCalla is very familiar with Mensing. McCalla coached football for 16 years at Grass Lake and Manchester. At Grass Lake, McCalla’s team scrimmaged against Mensing’s for several years.
“It was definitely a great hire for us,” McCalla said. “We needed a different direction, and we feel confident that he is the right person for the job.”
Mensing, who will step down as athletic director and director of student advancement at Whiteford at the end of the school year, planned on meeting the John Glenn football players and parents this week. He will start immediately to build a coaching staff and relationships.
“They’ve struggled the last couple of years, but there is a solid history there,” Mensing said. “The first thing is I want is to bring stability and consistency to the program. They’ve had three football coaches in four years. We have to create an atmosphere where playing football is fun, create a culture where kids are excited about being part of the program.”
John Glenn has known football success. During the 1990s, John Glenn made several deep runs in the playoffs, reaching the Finals in 1993 and the Semifinals two more times.
The Rockets open the season Aug. 25 against Hartland in a nonleague game and play a challenging schedule in the always-tough Kensington Lakes Activities Association. They finished 2-7 last season and are seeking their first winning finish since 2014.
“There’s no doubt that we play a tough schedule,” McCalla said. “In any given year we play one if not two or even three teams ranked in the top five or top 10. It’s a tough football conference.
“I think the first thing he can do is instill confidence in our kids. That is an important first step – and not just the kids, but the parents and the community. Having confidence in our program.”
Mensing was an academic All-American at Adrian College, where his father Henry Mensing coached and served as athletic director. Jason Mensing has made four other coaching stops during his 19-year career and picked up a lot of playoff appearances and coach of the year awards, and a built a lot of relationships.
He led Addison to the playoffs in his first season as varsity coach. He spent one year at Grayling, and won an Associated Press Class B Coach of the Year award during his three years at Owosso. He returned to Lenawee County to coach Tecumseh during the mid-2000s. In his one year away from high school football, he coached at Siena Heights University.
Whiteford lured him from the college level in 2012.
It wasn’t long before the milestone games and victories began piling up. Ironically, two Bobcats playoff losses were important steps in the team’s ascension. The first was a 2013 loss to New Lothrop in the Division 8 Regional Final. The Bobcats had beaten Sterling Heights Parkway Christian 59-6 and Detroit Allen Academy 61-20 in two home District games, then went on the road to face the Hornets, a powerhouse program.
“That loss was really big,” he said. “It showed us how far away we were but showed us what we needed to do to get there.”
Whiteford won seven games the following year, and in 2015 the Bobcats won three playoff games for the first time in school history, including a victory over a strong Climax-Scotts team. They lost the following week to Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes, but again, Mensing said, it was a loss that showed them the way.
“It was the moment we knew we belonged,” he said.
The Bobcats have ‘belonged’ ever since, proving not to be a one-and-done type program.
The 2017 team scored an incredible 737 points and punted just twice all season. The closest any opponent came was 16 points. Whiteford defeated Mendon in the Semifinals and Saginaw Nouvel in the Division 8 championship game.
Even in 2019 when the Bobcats went just 5-5, they upset a powerful Sand Creek team. Last year Whiteford reached the Division 8 Semifinals and led Hudson 22-0 at halftime before losing to the eventual champion, 28-22.
“There were some ups and downs,” Mensing said. “There were times we implemented things that didn’t necessarily work. Overall, though, we kept growing.
“When I look back at those years, the focus we started on growth and getting better year after year worked. We had 10 years of consistent growth. I do feel we are significantly more mature and better of a program than we were when I got here in 2012.”
Now, Mensing turns his attention to John Glenn, a school six times the size of Whiteford. He believes in the system he’s bringing with him and in the students at John Glenn.
“He’s a kid guy,” McCalla said. “We need people who are going to be there for our kids, not just football players, but all of our students. It’s not just about football, but life lessons.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Coach Jason Mensing confers with a Whiteford player during one of the team’s two runs to Ford Field. (Middle) Mensing will be leaving the program after 10 seasons with the Bobcats. (Top photo by Tom Hawley/Monroe News; middle by Cari Hayes.)
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.)