Northern Michigan University on Saturday will host two recent 8-player football champions looking to build on their recent success – and two more contenders hoping to celebrate at Superior Dome for the first time.
Adrian Lenawee Christian in Division 2 will attempt to win a third title in four seasons, while Marion is making its first championship game trip in more than three decades and after a series of just-misses the last few years.
Martin and Inland Lakes kick off at 11 a.m., and Lenawee Christian and Marion follow at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online through NMU or at the door – click for details – and both games will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a look at all four finalists:
Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 9
Coach: Brad Blauvelt, sixth season (56-11)
League finish: Tied for second in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League White
Championship history: 8-Player Division 1 champion 2022, 11-Player Class D champion 1987.
Best wins: 42-34 over No. 5 Kingston in Semifinal, 28-6 over No. 10 Gobles in Regional Final, 44-18 (Regional Semifinal) and 28-14 over Marcellus.
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Meyers, 6-2/170 jr. (1,058 yards/11 TDs passing, 1,171 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/LB Haylen Buell, 5-8/150 soph. (967 yards/13 TDs rushing), WR/DB Taegan Harris, 5-10/150 sr. (538 yards/6 TDs receiving); TE/LB Abe Dykstra, 5-10/195 sr. (199 yards/3 TDs receiving).
Outlook: Martin graduated three all-staters including its two main offensive contributors and still finds itself back where it defeated Merrill 74-24 to finish last season. Meyers has stepped nicely into the dual-threat quarterback role after all-stater J.R. Hildebrand graduated, and he has the Clippers averaging 38.5 points per game. The team’s only losses came to undefeated Bridgman and Gobles, and Martin avenged the latter in the Regional Final. Dykstra was the team’s second-leading tackler in last season’s Final, and Buell also was a top contributor on that side of the ball before taking on a large share of the rushing load this fall.
INDIAN RIVER INLAND LAKES
Record/Rank: 11-1, No. 6
Coach: Travis Meyer, fifth season (35-17)
League finish: First in Ski Valley Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 12-0 over No. 2 Pickford in Semifinal, 40-36 over No. 3 St. Ignace in Regional Final, 22-6 over No. 7 Alcona in Regional Semifinal, 54-46 over Division 2 No. 10 Lake Linden-Hubbell.
Players to watch: QB/DB Aidan Fenstermaker, 5-9/160 jr. (1,695 yards/25 TDs rushing, 1,090 yards/14 TDs passing); RB/LB Payton Teuthorn, 6-0/190 sr. (219 yards/3 TDs rushing, 2 TDs receiving); TE/DB Jacob Willey, 6-0/200 sr. (514 yards/6 TDs receiving); RB/DB Andre Bradford, 5-10/180 soph. (400 yards/6 TDs rushing, 2 TDs receiving). (Only Fenstermaker’s stats include the Semifinal).
Outlook: Inland Lakes' two winningest seasons have come over the last three, and the Bulldogs’ only loss this fall was 30-28 to St. Ignace in Week 4 – with that defeat avenged in the Regional Final. The playoffs have included two of the most impressive defensive performances in either 8-player bracket, as Pickford averaged 47 points per game heading into their matchup and Alcona was averaging 52 ppg. Inland Lakes had 21 interceptions entering the Semifinals, with Fenstermaker snagging seven and sophomore Wyatt Hanel five. Willey earned an all-state honorable mention last season.
ADRIAN LENAWEE CHRISTIAN
Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Bill Wilharms, 10th season (91-24)
League finish: First in Southern Central Athletic Association East
Championship history: 8-Player Division 1 champion 2021 and 2020.
Best wins: 42-14 over Deckerville in Semifinal, 56-16 over Climax-Scotts in Regional Final, 48-28 over Kingston, 73-20 over Mendon.
Players to watch: WR/CB Jesse Miller, 6-0/175 sr. (537 yards/8 TDs receiving); QB/S Sam Lutz, 5-7/165 sr. (2,003 yards/32 TDs passing, 973 yards/27 TDs rushing); RB/CB Blake Drogowski, 6-0/175 sr. (502 yards/7 TDs rushing, 513 yards/8 TDs receiving); WR/LB Paul Towler, 6-2/185 sr. (550 yards/8 TDs receiving).
Outlook: This season’s Lenawee Christian run has been reminiscent of the undefeated seasons of 2020 and 2021, as the Cougars have defeated their opponents on average 54-10. Kingston at 20 points provided the closest challenge. Junior back-up quarterback Brenner Powers has run for 513 yards and seven scores and thrown for three more, and senior tight end Easton Boggs has been another significant target with a team-high 37 catches for 524 yards and seven touchdowns heading into last weekend. Lutz ran for three TDs and threw for three in the Semifinal win.
Record/Rank: 11-0, No. 2
Coach: Chad Grundy, 14th season (102-45)
League finish: First in West Michigan D League.
Championship history: 11-Player Class DD champion 1990.
Best wins: 42-36 over No. 10 Lake Linden-Hubbell in Semifinal, 48-6 over No. 4 Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in Regional Final, 64-14 over Bay City All Saints in Regional Semifinal, 62-0 over Mesick.
Players to watch: QB/LB Collin McCrimmon, 5-8/180 soph. (1,006 yards/18 TDs passing, 679 yards/10 TDs rushing); RB/DB Gavin Prielipp, 5-10/180 sr. (964 yards/16 TDs rushing, 519 yards/10 TDs receiving); FB/LB Cole Meyer, 6-2/210 jr. (749 yards/9 TDs rushing, 289 yards/4 TDs receiving); C/NG Hayden Ostrowski, 5-10/240 sr.
Outlook: After running into eventual Division 2 champion Powers North Central in Semifinals the last three seasons, Marion broke through to take the next step this fall. The Eagles had four shutouts and gave up eight points total over their first five games and still haven’t given up more than 14 points in a game except once, in their Semifinal win. The offense, meanwhile, is averaging 55 points per game and gaining 9.8 yards per rush with McCrimmon keeping defenders on their toes with an incredible 32.5 yards per completion. Prielipp also has 10 interceptions to go with his offensive output.
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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.)