We will award a first-time 8-Player Football Finals champion Saturday at North Michigan University’s Superior Dome. We also may watch an incredible winning streak grow to include a third-straight title – or witness an epic ending to that run with another first-time champion in this format.
Tickets may be purchased online through NMU or at the door – click for details – and both games will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv and replayed on Bally Sports Detroit’s primary channel Nov. 24 beginning at 8 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a look at all four finalists. Statistics do not include Semifinals.
Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 3
Coach: Brad Blauvelt, fifth season (45-10)
League finish: First in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League Tier 1
Championship history: 11-Player Class D champion 1987.
Best wins: 56-14 over No. 8 Adrian Lenawee Christian in Regional Final, 42-8 (Semifinal) and 49-6 over No. 9 Brown City, 50-6 over No. 10 Gobles, 30-28 over Division 2 No. 7 Mendon.
Players to watch: QB/LB JR Hildebrand, 6-0/180 sr. (1,518 yards/25 TDs rushing, 1,254 yards/25 TDs passing); RB/CB Karter Ribble, 5-10/180 sr. (430 yards/9 TDs rushing, 366 yards/6 TDs receiving); TE/LB Sam Jager, 6-1/180 sr. (426 yards/6 TDs receiving); WR/CB Drake Buell, 5-11/130 sr. (165 yards/3 TDs receiving).
Outlook: After putting Lenawee Christian’s pursuit of a third-straight championship to an end, Martin is lined up for its opportunity bringing a combined 39-6 record since making the move to 8-player in 2019. Hildebrand earned an all-state honorable mention last season, and he’s surrounded by playmakers also including junior receiver Taegan Harris (392 yards/4 TDs receiving) and senior running back Braeden Shanley (529 yards/6 TDs rushing). Martin’s losses were to Bridgman and Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, which both finished without a loss, and the Week 9 defeat to Bridgman was by just a point.
Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 2
Coach: Christian Wiley, eighth season (50-28)
League finish: First in Central Michigan 8-Man Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 22-20 over No. 1 Munising in Semifinal, 68-28 (Regional Final) and 36-14 over Breckenridge, 52-12 over Division 2 No. 9 Morrice.
Players to watch: QB/DB Joel Tack, 6-0/145 sr. (1,518 yards/26 TDs passing, 1,846 yards/27 touchdowns rushing); WR/DB Denver Coty, 6-0/155 sr. (415 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Sawyer Jordan, 5-9/140 sr. (722 yards/8 TDs rushing); OL/LB Cameron Raftery, 5-11/210 sr.
Outlook: Merrill went a solid 11-6 over the last two seasons but has won more games and scored nearly as many points this fall as those two combined. Tack is a substantial pace-setter on offense, and he had another 263 yards and a touchdown passing and 131 yards and two scores rushing against Munising in the Semifinal. The previously-undefeated Mustangs were the only team to get closer than 22 points to the Vandals this season. Raftery earned an all-state honorable mention at linebacker in 2021. Senior flanker Kaleb Walker (504 yards/10 TDs receiving, 9.4 yards per carry rushing) is another player to watch.
Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 7
Coach: Robert Kretschman, seventh season (58-19)
League finish: Second in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League Tier 1
Championship history: 11 MHSAA 11-Player titles (most recent 2011), one runner-up finish.
Best wins: 30-14 over No. 9 Morrice in Semifinal, 46-44 over No. 2 Colon in Regional Final, 44-18 over No. 3 Climax-Scotts in Regional Semifinal, 36-6 over Division 1 No. 10 Gobles.
Players to watch: RB/DB Evan Lukeman, 5-9/155 sr. (1,180 yards/17 TDs rushing); QB/DB Luke Schinker, 6-0/160 sr. (560 yards/8 TDs passing); FB/DB Jack McCaw, 5-8/165 jr. (1,674 yards/22 TDs rushing, 2 TDs passing); TE/DB Gabe Haigh, 6-2/205 sr. (360 yards/8 TDs receiving).
Outlook: It was only a matter of time before longtime 11-player small-school power Mendon found this level of success in 8-player as well. The Hornets’ only losses this season were to Martin in the season opener and Bridgman two weeks later, and since only Colon has come closer than two touchdowns. Lukeman earned an all-state honorable mention last season and is part of a dynamic 1-2 combo with McCaw, who added another 198 yards and three touchdowns rushing against Morrice last week. Schinker also had four interceptions from his defensive back spot entering the Semifinal.
POWERS NORTH CENTRAL
Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Leo Gorzinski, fifth season (54-3)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Eight Conference West
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2021).
Best wins: 36-12 over No. 4 Marion in Semifinal, 42-0 over No. 5 Crystal Falls Forest Park, 68-8 over Norway.
Players to watch: QB/DB Luke Gorzinski, 6-0/185 sr. (1,301 yards/19 TDs passing, 1,215 yards/20 TDs rushing); WR/DB Lane Gorzinski, 6-0/170 soph. (299 yards/5 TDs rushing, 7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Dillon Raab, 5-8/170 sr. (474 yards/7 TDs rushing, 305 yards/4 TDs receiving); OL/DL Max Nason, 6-0/255 jr.
Outlook: With 36 straight wins over the last three seasons, the two-time reigning champion Jets broke their previous 8-player record 27-game winning streak. This will be the final high school game for Luke Gorzinski, who has quarterbacked North Central throughout the streak and was named 8-player Player of the Year as a junior by The Associated Press. He’s led this year’s team to average 57 points per game, and he also starts for a defense that’s giving up 3.7 points per contest. He and Raab both had returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and junior Jacob Gorzinski had four punt return TDs heading into the Semifinal.
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Kingsley football fans have become pretty familiar with VIP parking for home games over the last couple of seasons.
They may just start looking for a Kingsley VIP lot at Ford Field. The Stags just captured the MHSAA Division 6 championship trophy with a 38-24 victory over Almont, their second Finals championship and first since 2005.
The road to the Finals started with Kingsley hosting two playoff games, allowing great use of the VIP Parking of Trina’s Touchdown Club. The lot is adjacent to the school’s Rodes Field and provided in loving memory of Katrina “Trina” Kay Schueller, who passed away Oct. 21, 2021, at Munson Medical Center.
Those playoff games filling Trina’s Touchdown Club’s parking lot featured wins over Mason County Central 61-12 and Manistee 37-18, and 51-27 over Gladstone in the Regional Final. Kingsley then traveled down the road and defeated Reed City 37-7 in the Semifinal.
There may not have been designated VIP parking in Cadillac and Ford Field for the Stags’ followers, but there were a lot of VIPs at both stadiums with Schueller on their minds. Pretty much everyone with an affiliation with the highly-successful program or familiarity with the community’s struggles have become VIPs to the Kingsley coaching staff and many others.
Most certainly among the VIPs are head coach Tim Wooer, assistant coach Conner Schueller, his brother Carter Schueller, and his father Mike Schueller.
Conner was set to play the biggest regular-season game of his career the day after his mom passed. It was the regular-season finale against rival Traverse City St. Francis.
Wooer vividly remembers the moments leading up to that matchup, noting how difficult it was for Conner. But his then-fullback and now-assistant coach demonstrated amazing strength and maturity he stills exhibits today.
“He’s in his senior football season, and his mom is in the hospital for four weeks — he’s balancing that playing football and going to school,” Wooer recalled. “And then she passes, and he has the strength to come back to school and deliver the news to our team.
“I am sobbing watching this kid, and I’m just amazed,” Wooer continued. “The next night is Parents Night, and he’s on the field with his dad and brother without his mom.”
Conner still played, making a 4th-down goal line tackle to prevent a St. Francis touchdown. The Gladiators won the game, but Conner won the day, conquering much just to dress for the game.
The Stags went on to playoff wins over Kingsford 28-10 and Clare 32-6. They bowed out with a 33-18 Regional loss to Frankenmuth.
Conner’s junior year of 2020 had been cut short as the Kingsley was forced to forfeit its District Final to Reed City because several players and coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19. The Stags had Ford Field in their minds that season too after playoff wins over 38-13 Standish-Sterling 38-13 and Gladwin 63-16.
Conner, who celebrated his 20th birthday at Saturday’s Final, remembers his playing days and the challenges presented him.
“At the time it was ‘she’s not there,’ especially my senior year she wasn’t there to watch me and finish it out, but I know she’s watching above,” he said. “We were about to go play Reed City my junior year for Regionals, and everyone got sick and it ended our season unfortunately.”
Those challenges were on his mind at Ford Field, and running through his mind when he saw his brother and father in the stands. Carter, now a senior at Kingsley, had been unable to play football due to injuries.
“I thought about my brother – he unfortunately didn’t play this year due to his injuries, and I don’t really blame him for that,” Conner said. “I thought about him as well because it was just me and my dad and my brother now.
“It was very emotional,” Conner continued. “I got a glimpse of him in the strands.”
Carter also was filled with gratitude for the coaching staff for welcoming and mentoring him. He had become keenly aware of the amount of time coaches spend away from family at practices and going through film.
In addition to his family, Conner was thinking about many others in the Kingsley community – and other senior classes like his that didn’t get the chance to celebrate a championship.
He also was thinking about Justin Hansen, a 2003 graduate of Kingsley. Hansen was a captain on the 2002 conference championship team. He went on to become a special-operations Marine sergeant and was killed in action July 24, 2012, while deployed in Afghanistan. Hansen was on patrol as part of an operation in search of a high-value target when his team was hit with small arms fire.
On Saturday, Wooer was wearing a red T-shirt with the letters “USA” on the front and the name “Hansen” on the back. It also featured the number 54, Hansen’s in high school.
Wooer, who turned 54 in July, wore the shirt in Hansen’s memory knowing Hansen would be on the veteran coach’s mind and symbolizing Hansen’s presence with the team at Ford Field.
Wooer wants to make sure Hanson is never forgotten and reminds the soldier’s family the entire community remains behind them.
“I believe it is part of our job as a community to show our love to this family and help in any way possible to help them get through this process,” Wooers said. “After the funeral, we all went about life.
“We certainly still think about Justin and feel the pain,” he continued. “But nothing like a family does.”
Hansen’s tragic passing led to the creation of the annual Patriot Game in Traverse City in 2012 while Wooer was coaching Traverse City West. The game features crosstown rivals West and Traverse City Central every year and strives to honor veterans, first responders, active duty military, and area heroes who died while serving their country.
Saturday’s win over Almont left Wooer emotionally exhausted after all the preparations to do it right for the senior class, the school, the Kingsley community, the Schueller family and Hansen. Collectively, they’ve really become more like a family to the Stags coaching staff and many, many others.
“In terms of emotions, there is no doubt Justin was on my mind throughout the game,” Wooer said. “Trina and Conner have been – those are two huge pieces.
“And, a lot of my thoughts are with the seniors,” he continued. “You want to win the game, but also it is your last time with them.”
Wooer has learned a lot from his former players and coaches over the years. He’s become close friends with many of them, going back to his early days of coaching as a student-teacher at Elk Rapids. He also coached at Farewell and Traverse City West, the latter from 2008-2017 after a first tenure at Kingsley. He returned to Kingsley in 2018.
Schueller is among several former players and coaches who have been on Wooer’s coaching staffs over the years. Several continue today.
“I could give you lots of other stories about kids I have had,” Wooer said. “There comes this transition where they turn into such amazing men, you catch yourself every once in a while saying, ‘I want to be like him.’
“You get this huge smile on your face because you’re so proud of them, just like a mother or father would,” Wooer continued. “A coach always looks at his players like they’re part of his family.”
In addition to Conner, current assistants with long-term relationships with Wooer are Tom Kaleita, Kyle Smith, Ryan Zenner, Dan Goethals, Josh Merchant, Jordan Bradford, Steve Klinge, Connor Schueller, Mike Arlt, Larry Mikowski, Bobby Howell, Rob Whims and Jason Morrow.
This year’s seniors were Jon Pearson, Eli Graves, Skylar Workman, Gavyn Merchant, Max Goethals, Evan Trafford, Bode Bielas, Grant Kolbusz, James Person, Caleb Bott, Trenton Peacock, Noah Scribner and Gavin Dear. They and the coaching staff will be the center of attention as the community celebrates the football team at 7 p.m. this evening in the high school gymnasium.
The seniors probably won’t need VIP parking tonight. But if it would help, Conner would surely make arrangements to utilize Trina’s Touchdown Club. He’d have to add a shuttle though as Rodes Field is about a mile away from the school.
“It feels amazing — I don’t think it really hit any one yet, but I am sure it will,” Conner said. “After we won, it is truly something – it is something else I can’t explain.
“The seniors finally won it the way they were supposed to,” he continued. “It was a good class of seniors.”
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 [email protected] 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) Kingsley students support their classmates during Saturday’s Division 6 Final at Ford Field. (2) Stags assistant coach Conner Schueller watches from the sideline during an Almont run back. (3) Kingsley coach Tim Wooer, in red, prepares to present the championship trophy to his team including Schueller, far right. (4) Trina’s Touchdown Club welcomes members to the VIP lot adjacent to the Kingsley stadium. (Ford Field photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos; touchdown club photo courtesy of the Kingsley football program.)