By Jim Moyes
Although the football fortunes at Orchard View have taken a sharp nose-dive in recent seasons, how ironic is it that two former Orchard View grads will battle it out for a state championship this weekend.
The pair of proud Orchard View grads, Eric Shugars, OV Class of 1995, and the elder statesman of the duo, Dan Rohn, OV Class of 1989, will guide their teams into Ford Field Friday afternoon at 1:00 PM to play for a Division 2 state championship.
Rohn with the undefeated and top rated DeLaSalle Pilots, while Schugars brings the Traverse City Central Trojans to the state finals for the first time in 33 years dating back to the era of the legendary Jim Ooley.
Rohn first began his heralded head coaching career, a journey that will eventually make him a surefire ‘lock’ for entrée into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame, by totally resurrecting an ailing program at Fremont High.
Dan Rohn was a miracle worker at Fremont.
Before Rohn became the Fremont head coach in 1995, the Packers suffered through 12 consecutive losing seasons, including five years where they failed to win even one game.
Rohn’s 11-year stint as mentor for Fremont was 51-34, an impressive mark when one looks at what has transpired in the Baby Food Capitol of the World since his departure. In the last seven years, Fremont has produced a woeful record of but 4 wins and 57 losses.
After taking a year away from coaching in 2006, the former bruising fullback at OV high took his football coaching talents to Grand Rapids West Catholic where his accomplishments were off the charts.
In his nine years as head coach of the Falcons, Rohn compiled a record of 99-19 and capped off his final six years by taking his teams to the state finals five times, winning it all in four of those trips, including three titles in a row before leaving West Catholic following the 2015 season.
To give Friday’s D2 championship matchup yet another improbable twist, after Rohn left West Catholic he worked two seasons as an assistant coach at Ferris State for Tony Annese. And who also was an assistant to Annese in Big Rapids? You guessed it – Eric’s Hall of Fame father, Jack Schugars!
Dan played high school football for John Shillito, a coach who has stamped himself as one of Michigan’s all-time best high school coaches with more than 300 victories during a still active 40-year career.
Shillito’s 1999 Cardinal team that reached the state finals, racked up an amazing 774 points, still the most points scored in a single season in state history! This ‘ole announcer’ finds it hard to believe that a school (OV) that played for a state title 3 times in the last 26 years, and won it all in 2004, did not even field a varsity football team this past season.
I was fortunate to talk with Dan and Eric for this story and I was so impressed with the respect they have, not only for their opposing teams, but the high regard they have for one another.
While talking with both coaches, it was almost like they were talking about their own team as both described their opponents as very disciplined, well coached, and blue-collar players.
“I both played and then later coached against those Jack Schugar’s Oakridge teams, and I played my last game in high school against Oakridge” said Rohn. “We always ended our season during my high school days with a rivalry game against Oakridge.“
With Rohn as their two-way leader on the field back in 1988, the Cardinals topped Schugar’s Eagle team 21-12 and finished the season with a splendid 8-1 record. The following year with Rohn now taking his football talents to Grand Valley, where he played for current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Oakridge turned the tables on the Cardinals with a convincing 45-0 victory.
“We really became good friends when we worked together at Ferris,” said Rohn. “Jack has always been great to me and I have so much respect for Jack and the entire Shugars family. We text and talk to each other often. Jack even coached at my camp this past summer and he was terrific.”
When asked for his thoughts on his Friday afternoon opponent for all the marbles, Dan had nothing but praise for Eric Schugars’ Trojans.
“They’re not going to turn the ball over, they just are a really sound team,” said Rohn. “They remind me of the blue-collar kids from my days back in Muskegon. When you get to the state finals, you want to play the best and we are going to be playing the best in Traverse City.”
If one could describe Rohn as a miracle worker at Fremont, perhaps the same could be said for Eric Schugars, who was still in grammar school at OV when Rohn was starring on the gridiron for the Cardinals.
After earning his degree from Western Michigan University, Eric patiently worked his way up the ladder as a teacher/coach beginning in 2002 at Traverse City.
Schugars coached at nearly all the levels for the Trojans: Freshman football coach, JV coach, and served as the defensive coordinator for four years before taking over duties as the head football coach in 2015.
Schugars experienced success right out of the gate. The Trojans were 9-1 in Eric’s first year, qualifying for the state playoffs in all 6 seasons Schugars has been at the helm.
Traverse City Central had visions of returning to the state finals last year as they led Mona Shores by ten points at halftime. However, Brady Rose and the Sailors responded with a big second half to trip up the Trojans en route to their second consecutive state championship with a win over Dan Rohn’s DeLaSalle Pilots.
Traverse City now has their own Brady Rose impersonator in senior two-way standout Carson Bourdo.
However, the superstar for the Trojans is quarterback and linebacker Josh Burnham, a Notre Dame commit and top-flight Mr. football candidate. Burnham is the best football player out of Traverse City Central since Mark Brammer.
I first remember Eric Schugars as a member of the Orchard View basketball team that made its longest run ever in the MHSAA playoffs during the 1994-95 season.
Eric averaged a modest 5 points per game for Mike Henry’s Cardinals that captured the Class B regional title with a thrilling two-point victory over Caledonia. Headlining that Cardinal team was Brian Montonnati who averaged more than 23 points per contest before embarking on an outstanding college career at Oklahoma State.
In my conversation with Eric Schugars, he quickly gave praise of his former Orchard View neighbor and DeLasalle opponent.
“I was six years behind Dan in school, but I sure remember him as a great player at Orchard View,” said Schugars about his memories of Rohn walking the Cardinal hallways. “However, I best remember him when he was coaching in games against my Dad’s Oakridge teams.”
Just as he was on the sidelines at all of his father’s state championship games, the same will hold true for this Friday’s big game. But this time it will be young Eric who will be calling the shots.
“It’s just so good to have Dad with me at these games because this is what he loves best, just coaching these young kids,” said Schugars.
Earlier this week, I had a chance to chat with one of my all-time favorite coaches – and people – in Jack Schugars. It’s no surprise for those that know Jack that he is still as excited about football as ever. When asked how excited he was to be on the sidelines with his son Eric at Ford Field Jack gushed:
“Oh you bet I’m excited,” said Hall of Fame Coach Jack Schugars about Friday’s big matchup at Ford Field. “I’ll be on the sidelines Friday with Eric, but this time I don’t have to deal with all the responsibilities.”
Eric is no stranger to being with his Dad at a state championship game.
“Eric was with me at all our state finals games and this week will really be something special,” said the eldest Schugars.
Understandably still saddened with the passing of his beloved wife Julie 15 months ago, Jack mentioned that staying busy with football is the best possible therapy for him.
And what a busy but exciting week it will be for the elder Schugars.
Twice a week Jack travels from his new digs up in Traverse City to work two practices each week with his great friend and head coach of the No. 1 ranked team in Division 2 college football, Tony Annese and the Ferris State Bulldogs. Following Friday’s game, Jack will drive back to Big Rapids to coach on the sidelines in the D2 playoff game against rival Grand Valley State, the alma mater of none other than, Dan Rohn.
Ironically, Rohn was a senior at Orchard View in 1988 when Traverse City last appeared in a state final, a 24-14 victory over Detroit Catholic Central before a crowd of nearly 26,000 fans at the Pontiac Silver Dome, the third and final state championship earned by the Trojans during the legendary Jim Ooley era.
Although the Schugars-Rohn friendship will continue both before and after the game, once the game kicks off, Eric and Dan mentioned the focus will be on winning the football game. Only when the clock reaches 0:00 at the game’s conclusion, and only then, will those friendships and respect be resumed. I can’t wait to watch on TV the hugs they will share at the game’s end.
For this ‘ole announcer’ who first began broadcasting in Traverse City before returning to Muskegon to cover players like Rohn and Schugars, it’s a win-win scenario.
However, for the fans and alumni for Orchard View, it’s even a bigger win.
How proud Cardinal fans must be of these two OV grads!