From chess to championship: Friends Jermain Crowell, Thomas Wilcher vie for regional title

There will be no surprises when No. 2 Detroit Cass Tech plays at…

From chess to championship: Friends Jermain Crowell, Thomas Wilcher vie for regional title
From chess to championship: Friends Jermain Crowell, Thomas Wilcher vie for regional title 1

David Goricki
| The Detroit News

There will be no surprises when No. 2 Detroit Cass Tech plays at No. 1 Belleville on Saturday afternoon for the Division 1 regional championship.

After all, Belleville coach Jermain Crowell and Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher are close friends, having weekly chess matches — sometimes daily — at each other’s homes while also keeping tabs on multiple other things in their lives.

When Crowell tested positive for COVID-19 back in late November, he received daily calls from Wilcher, who wanted to take him to the hospital. Crowell declined the trip to the hospital, but not the calls.

When Wilcher found out Crowell, who said he went through “four days of hell” at the beginning of his COVID battle, was healthy, he told him, “It’s back on!”

That would be the showdown between Cass Tech and Belleville, which originally was scheduled for Nov. 20. The regional final was pushed back to Saturday due to multiple stoppages by the Michigan High School Athletic Association and state officials because of the pandemic.

“This will be the first time we’ve ever been across the field from each other,” Crowell said. “We would have had people flying in for this game if it would have been played back in November.”

Crowell joined Wilcher’s staff at Cass Tech in 2008, then became the defensive coordinator during Cass Tech’s Division 1 state championship seasons in 2011 and 2012, working two more years under Wilcher before taking the head job at Belleville in 2015.

Belleville is 41-3 the last four seasons, earning its first regional championships in program history in 2018 and 2019, but still is in search of its first state title game appearance.

Cass Tech is 119-20 in the last 11 years, winning state titles in 2011, 2012 and 2016, also falling to Romeo in the 2015 state championship game.

“When I played at Detroit Central (in the late 1980s), Wilcher was one of my coaches,” Crowell said. “He was a legend at Central, not only in football, he was a great track star and a great swimmer too; just a great athlete.

“I’ve learned everything from Wilcher, and he’s still teaching. He’s calmer than me, always slows things down. I’m impatient. He’s taught me how to deal with things, how to deal with kids and their grades, how to deal with college coaches. I’ve learned a lot from him through the years.”

Wilcher and Crowell both played under the legendary Woody Thomas at Detroit Central, Wilcher in the early ’80s before moving on to Michigan, where he was running back under Bo Schembechler.

Wilcher was the nation’s top-ranked high hurdler as a junior at Detroit Central, then won the NCAA indoor 55-meter hurdles championship at Michigan in 1986, and that fall  rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan’s 34-17 win over Wisconsin, taking the handoffs from Jim Harbaugh while handing Schembechler his 200th career win.

Wilcher joined Thomas’ staff at Detroit Central after his Michigan career, coaching at Central for two years before moving on to Cass Tech in 1989 where he has been ever since.

“They are very close,” said former Belleville offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers, who now is in his first year as head coach at Detroit Loyola. “They would play chess over at each other’s house every single day, at least they did pre-pandemic days.”

Wilcher says they do play chess, even if they aren’t good at it.

“We talk regularly, play chess and laugh about how bad we are,” Wilcher said. “We talk all the time. I was nervous when he got COVID, wanted to make sure he was OK. COVID’s a scary thing.”

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Wilcher remembers Crowell’s playing days as a “little fast guy” at Central, where he was a nose guard and also play cornerback. 

“He knows how to get the kids to play for him,” Wilcher said of Crowell, “how to buy into the system and you can see that system going right now. He has a lot of ballers, guys who can communicate really well and direct each other.”

Wilcher said Belleville’s speed provides plenty of challenges for opponents.

“… You have to duplicate their speed,” he said, “and that’s when you have a problem because you really don’t know how fast a person is until you get there and if you can’t make the adjustments off that speed that’s when you run into problems.

“They have a lot of fast players and a lot of great players and that’s where the problem comes in. They have a lot of team speed. Their kids know where to go, how to run gaps, their receivers know how to run routes and their players know how to play in space very well so there’s a lot of things to look at. The variable is can you duplicate what he does in practice and you can’t so that’s where the problem comes in.”

Cass Tech has tremendous size up front with an offensive line consisting of Michigan-bound center Raheem Anderson (6-foot-3, 305), Pittsburgh-bound tackle Terrence Enos (6-5, 310) and Charlie Sims (6-5, 330).

And, Cass Tech also has stars on defense, led by the Penn State-bound King twins, cornerback/receiver Kalen and linebacker/running back Kobe.

Oh, and then there’s that speed with Belleville.

While Purdue-bound receiver Deion Burks has opted out, Belleville quarterback Christian Dhue-Reid — the state’s career record holder for touchdown passes (132) — still has a lot of weapons to work with in Darrell Johnson, Christian Rapley and Jeremiah Caldwell.

And, Belleville is equally impressive defensively, led by Alabama-bound lineman Damon Payne, Penn State-bound linebacker Jamari Buddin, four-star junior safety Myles Rowser and three-star junior cornerback Deshaun Lee.

So, how did last weekend’s chess match go?

“Wilcher normally wins, but I beat Wilcher and Thomas beat Mr. Payne and Mr. Payne beat me so I really think I won,” said Crowell, noting Damon Payne’s father joined the group.

Now, Wilcher has to find a plan to neutralize Payne’s son, which will not be an easy thing to do.

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