Part of the enchantment of high school sports is the relatively small window athletes receive to play them. Most get four seasons – and most football players just two on the varsity team under the frequently and fondly-referenced “Friday night lights.”
It will be the first playoffs for thousands of players and the start of the last playoffs for thousands more as 11-Player District Semifinals and 8-Player Regional Semifinals kick off with 128 games, and 16 more Saturday.
The mini heat wave finishing its run through Michigan is another reason to check out a first-round game in person. But if you’re not heading out, you still can watch nearly all of them – as of Thursday evening, 122 of this weekend’s 144 playoff games will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv, viewable with subscription. Keep up with scores as well and Round 2 matchups as they’re determined on the Football Playoff Scoreboard.
Here are just a handful of the intriguing matchups as this postseason gets underway. Games are Friday unless noted.
11-Player Division 1
Rochester Adams (6-3) at West Bloomfield (7-2) - WATCH
These two rank among the most successful playoff teams in the state over the last three seasons, with West Bloomfield a combined 8-2 in the postseason with a Division 1 championship in 2020, and Adams a combined 7-2 (not counting a COVID-related forfeit in 2020) with a runner-up finish in 2021 after the Highlanders defeated the Lakers 14-13 in a Regional Final during that run. This fall West Bloomfield was third and Adams fourth in the Oakland Activities Association Red, thanks in part to the Lakers' 36-32 win in their Week 5 meeting. West Bloomfield also handed Southfield Arts & Technology its only defeat, 31-20 in Week 8.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Detroit Catholic Central (7-2) at Novi (7-2) - WATCH, St. Clair Shores Lakeview (7-2) at Macomb Dakota (7-2) - WATCH, Detroit Cass Tech (6-3) at Westland John Glenn (7-2) - WATCH.
11-Player Division 2
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (7-2) at Muskegon Mona Shores (6-3) - WATCH
This is also a rematch, as Mona Shores opened the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green schedule with a 28-10 win over Reeths-Puffer – and in fact, the Rockets are seeking their first win over Shores since 2016. But this also has been Reeths-Puffer’s winningest season since 2013, and they enter this opener coming off impressive back-to-back victories over Zeeland East 35-21 and Zeeland West 14-12, the latter avenging a 2022 defeat. Shores also defeated West, 14-6 two weeks ago, but was edged by East 21-20 in the regular-season finale.
11-Player Division 3
Zeeland East (6-3) at Zeeland West (6-3) - WATCH
Zeeland West has won its last six meetings with its neighbor, including once in the playoffs, since East swept a pair in 2018. The Dux claimed this season’s first matchup 36-13. But that shouldn’t be an indication a repeat is a sure thing. As noted above, East is coming off a one-point win over Mona Shores – avenging a 42-7 loss from a year ago and breaking a two-game losing streak to the Sailors since they rejoined the same league in 2020. West meanwhile has lost three straight games, but those beg for context as well – those defeats came to Muskegon High, Mona Shores and Reeths-Puffer, and all by eight points or fewer. Muskegon is the only team to score more than 14 points on the Dux, and the Big Reds put up just 22 in their six-point Week 7 win.
11-Player Division 4
Lansing Sexton (8-1) at Portland (9-0)
This is a rematch of the Week 8 decider for the Capital Area Activities Conference White title, and Portland’s 41-0 win over then-undefeated Sexton further emphasized the mightiness of the Raiders’ defense this year – they’ve given up just 47 points and also shut out Berrien Springs last week. Portland is up to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and enters having won District titles in Division 5 the last two seasons (and its Regional two years ago) and with a combined 29-5 record going back to the start of 2021. But Sexton, enjoying its best season since 2017, is ranked No. 10 and certainly has the ability to flip things if it can build up some success on offense and keep Portland’s off the field.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Big Rapids (8-1) at Spring Lake (7-2), Wayland (6-3) at Grand Rapids South Christian (6-3) - WATCH, Croswell-Lexington (7-2) at Harper Woods (6-3).
11-Player Division 5
Gladwin (7-2) at Ogemaw Heights (8-1) - WATCH
The only loss of Ogemaw Heights’ most successful regular season since 2009 came in the opener on the road at reigning Division 5 champion Gladwin, 42-28. The Falcons get the Flying Gs at home this time, and have given up just under 10 points per game on average since that defeat. Ogemaw Heights has downed five playoff teams over those eight games including previously-undefeated Almont 21-7 last week. About 40 miles southeast, Gladwin impressively ran its Jack Pine Conference winning streak to 19 games and three straight championships, and those defeats came last week to Frankenmuth and Week 7 to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep – which are 16-1 between them.
11-Player Division 6
Detroit Old Redford (8-1) at Detroit Edison (6-3), Saturday
Old Redford has built its most successful regular season, and the climb has been stunning. The Ravens didn’t play a game in 2020 or 2021, then went 4-5 last year before doubling their victories this fall – with their only loss in the season opener to playoff team Dearborn Heights Robichaud. Old Redford won the Charter School Conference Silver but should get one of its toughest challenges in Edison, which spent more than a month in the coaches poll top 10 and reached No. 6 on the list on the way to earning six wins for the third time in four seasons and after going just 2-7 a year ago. Edison tied for second in the Charter School Conference Gold behind undefeated Warren Michigan Collegiate.
11-Player Division 7
Traverse City St. Francis (4-4) at Charlevoix (8-1) - WATCH
This is another fascinating rematch. These two didn’t play in the same league this fall, but they did open against each other with St. Francis winning 41-40 while filling in almost an entirely new starting lineup. The Gladiators were coming off finishing Division 7 runner-up a year ago and had to navigate six more eventual playoff qualifiers – but reached the postseason again, and now a large group of new contributors at the start of the year have a season of experience against strong competition. Charlevoix bounced back and didn’t lose again – or let anyone closer than 13 points on the way to winning a league title and reaching eight wins for the fourth-straight season.
11-Player Division 8
Fowler (8-1) at Ithaca (9-0) - WATCH
The Division 8 bracket is loaded. Six teams are undefeated and five more have lost only once, and this game matches one from each group. Ithaca is playing in Division 8 for the first time and brings a streak of 15 straight league championships, Division 7 District titles two of the last three seasons and a current team that is outscoring its opponents on average 50-5 with shutouts in five of its last six games. But Fowler has seen this caliber of competition. The Eagles’ lone loss was 27-14 to Division 7 contender Pewamo-Westphalia in Week 6, and the Pirates are the only team to score on Fowler since Sept. 1. The Eagles have given up only 53 points this season with six shutouts, and five of those shutouts were of playoff teams including Frankfort, Laingsburg and McBain since the P-W loss.
8-Player Division 1
Mendon (7-2) at Gobles (7-2) - WATCH
Gobles made the switch to 8-player in 2021 and has strung together two straight seven-win seasons, with this fall’s coming against a schedule featuring five teams with winning records. Mendon wasn’t on this year’s slate after a league change, but they’ll meet again after the Hornets won their matchup a year ago 36-6. Gobles has scored 53 points in all of its wins and has its 2022 points total by more than 100. Mendon, last season’s Division 2 runner-up, remains similarly able to match points with most and lost only to still-undefeated Climax-Scotts and Adrian Lenawee Christian.
8-Player Division 2
Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (6-3), Saturday - WATCH
For more than a decade, this was a notable regular-season finale in the 11-player Great Western Conference, with these two meeting again in the playoffs six times between 2004-15. Forest Park switched to 8-player in 2016, Lake Linden-Hubbell in 2020, and this is the third season in a row they’ll meet in the regular season and playoffs. Forest Park won the Week 6 matchup this fall 36-28, but also won last year’s regular-season matchup 22-14 before the Lakes flipped things in the Regional Semifinal 44-12.
Second Half’s weekly “1st & Goal” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid and find more information on Facebook and X (Twitter) @mistudentaid.
PHOTO DeWitt's Elliott Larner (3) unloads a pass during a Week 9 win over Lansing Waverly. (Photo by TCP-Photography.)
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.)