Working Together to Give Teams Their Best, Dechow & Crew Win Every Time Out

By Tom Spencer
Special for

October 22, 2021

Football historians can debate this forever.

Tonight at Rodes Field in Kingsley – perhaps for the first time in Michigan High School Athletic Association history – three teams with perfect records will meet each other on the same football field in the same game.

Two of them, Traverse City St. Francis, and Kingsley, are playing for the right to boast of an undefeated regular season and an outright conference championship. The third team and its captain — better known as the referee crew — has already been assigned a first-round playoff game by the MHSAA.

Where they will go hasn’t been determined, but Joe Dechow’s crew knows it will referee at least two rounds this postseason. The veteran crew already has assignments from MHSAA but just like the schools, the crew is waiting for the postseason pairings to be announced Sunday.

Dechow, the crew leader and an MHSAA 41-year veteran official, will put on his white cap and be ready for the 7 p.m. kickoff tonight knowing Kingsley/St. Francis is a big, big game. Dechow’s crew members will go into kickoff confident they know at least one team that will win, just like every game they’ve done together for about the last 20 years are so.

“We always win,” Dechow jested.

But how officials define their victories is different, Dechow explained.

Taking the field with Dechow tonight will be umpire Joe Johnson, back judge Roark Pargeon, line judge Brett Spalding, head linesman Jeff Bretzke, side judge Peter Moss, and field judge Rick Zych.  All seven officials worked together in the Betsie Valley Officials Association for many years and have continued together as a crew with the Northern Sport Officials Association after the two combined a few years ago.

Football Officials“We don’t win or lose, but we’re a still a team,” he said. “One of the great things about working with the same guys for years and years is you know where people are going to be, and you know how they’re going to take care of things.

“It is a trust factor, ‘cuz it’s a team.”

Dechow’s team has taken the field every week for decades for the benefit of student-athletes. Moss has been an MHSAA registered official for 44 years. Spalding and Zych have been registered 36 years. Bretzke, Johnson and Paragon follow with 22, 20 and 16 years of MHSAA service, respectively. All officiate at least two sports.

Dechow was on the wrestling and football teams at Maple City Glen Lake High School. Upon graduating, he started officiating wrestling — at the age of just 18.

“That got interesting, you know, because you go from a player to a ref all at once and all these old coaches are looking at you like ‘Who are you, kid?’” Dechow recalled.

Dechow has been officiating football for 36 years and was a registered wrestling official for 15. There have been a few times he’s considered giving up the white cap that signals he’s the game’s referee. (The white cap originated to benefit television viewers for college and the National Football League.)

The referee has general oversight and control of the game. Dechow is the final authority for the score, the number of a down in case of a disagreement, and all rule interpretations when a debate arises among the other officials. He’s also the only official who wears a white hat; all the other officials wear black hats. 

The “white hat” also announces all penalties and confers with the offending team’s captain, monitors the quarterback area during the game, requests the linesmen to bring the yardage chains in for first down measurements and notifies the head coach of player ejections. 

Dechow was ready to put his white hat down for a while when he first attempted to give up refereeing due to family and career demands. He was planning to get out and was asked to help another crew for a “few” games.

“I was going to just do a couple of games, and then somebody else quit and I wound up getting back into it,” he said. “There was another white hat that had left just before the season started … so all of sudden I started hearing ‘Do you still have a white hat? Would you like to maybe …’

“So I did.”

Football OfficialsDechow’s crew has seen a lot of changes in MHSAA football during their careers. Rules to improve safety have been their favorites. They have also seen the addition of 8-player football and the use of two-way radios.

But it’s positive changes in sportsmanlike conduct among players, coaches and fans Dechow excitedly singles out.

Everyone, Dechow notes, is noticing the lower number of recruits joining the current officials in all MHSAA sports.

“More people appreciate the fact that we have to be out there, and we’re not out there to get anybody,” he said. “By and large the coaches are great.

“Of course they are emotional and of course they are pulling for their team and they’re going to argue for the right outcome for them,” he continued. “Over the last several years we have seen an absolutely marked change in people – spectators, players and coaches — all providing a lot more respect the officials.”

The crew had tonight’s game on its schedule at the beginning of the season. The guys couldn’t help looking ahead to how big a game it could be.

St. Francis coach Josh Sellers and Kingsley coach Tim Wooer probably had a better idea of how big a game it could be when they — and football enthusiasts all over Northern Michigan — likely circled it on the calendar. Kingsley won last year’s match 36-23 at Thirlby Field, the Gladiators’ home turf.

This year the Stags host with the Northern Michigan Football Conference’s Legends division championship on the line.

“Sports mean a lot to kids,” Dechow pointed out. “They meant a lot to us. 

“That’s why we’re out there.”

Tom 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 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) “White hat” Joe Dechow talks things over with crew members Roark Pargeon (left) and Brett Spalding during this season’s Mancelona/LeRoy Pine River varsity football game. (Middle) Those three plus Jeff Bretzke (middle) and Joe Johnson (second from right) huddle up. (Below) Dechow and Johnson confer with Mancelona coach Dan Derrer. (Photos by Miles Postema.)

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

By Tom Spencer
Special for

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 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.)