The MHSAA Football Playoffs drive on this week with 144 teams playing either 11-Player District Finals or 8-Player Regional Finals and the magnitude doubling as the number of high-profile matchups continues to grow.
More than 145,000 fans watched first-round playoff games across the state, and while the weather certainly has turned more wintery most places, this weekend also provides notable opportunities to take in multiple games – 61 will be played Friday, but 11 on Saturday including arguably the most intriguing games statewide in both 11 and 8-player formats.
Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing matchups, to be played Friday unless noted.
11-Player Division 1
Saline (9-1) at Belleville (10-0), Saturday - Watch
In continuing to build its 35-game winning streak this fall, reigning Division 1 champion Belleville has turned away nearly every challenger by a large margin. But the possibility of this District Final rematch with Saline has been carrying heavy anticipation for a while. The Tigers claimed last year’s District championship meeting 62-44, and once again star quarterback Bryce Underwood will match up with his Saline highly-touted counterpart CJ Carr. The Hornets’ only loss this season was in Week 9, 35-28 to undefeated Lake Orion, which entered the postseason with the highest playoff-point average in Division 1.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY West Bloomfield (8-2) at Utica Eisenhower (9-1) - WATCH, Macomb Dakota (8-2) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (8-2) - WATCH. SATURDAY Detroit Cass Tech (7-3) at Southfield Arts & Technology (9-1) - WATCH.
11-Player Division 2
Byron Center (9-1) at Caledonia (8-2)
This will be the second playoff meeting in three seasons for these Ottawa-Kent Conference powers, as they missed each other last year when Caledonia played in Division 1 and finished runner-up at Ford Field. The Fighting Scots emerged from the traditionally powerful O-K Red and have lost only to Division 1 opponents the last two seasons – Belleville in last year’s Final, Rockford twice and Grandville 38-34 four weeks ago. But Byron Center’s O-K White was one of the most competitive conferences in the state this season, and the Bulldogs’ lone slip-up came in Week 6 to Lowell 38-28.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Muskegon Mona Shores (7-3) at Muskegon (8-2), Dexter (7-3) at Gibraltar Carlson (9-1) - WATCH, Roseville (7-3) at Grosse Pointe South (9-1).
11-Player Division 3
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (9-1) at Mount Pleasant (9-1), Saturday - WATCH
Forest Hills Central shared the O-K White championship with Byron Center after finishing Division 2 runner-up a year ago, with its lone loss 15-14 to the Bulldogs in Week 5. The Rangers have been among Division 3 championship favorites all season but head to Mount Pleasant to face an Oilers team that quietly joined that group as well with a perfect run after its opening-weekend loss to Saginaw Heritage – adding a 31-17 win over the O-K White’s Grand Rapids Northview last week. Worth noting, FHC had defeated Northview 45-0 in Week 7.
11-Player Division 4
Portland (10-0) at Hastings (8-2) - WATCH
Thanks to its schedule filled with Division 3 opponents and still-undefeated nonleague foes, Hastings drew home field for this matchup of league champions and with its only losses this fall during the first three weeks to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep and Whitehall. The Saxons held off Charlotte 30-28 last week – the Raiders defeated Charlotte 35-8 in Week 7 – and this matchup could be power on power as Portland gets another test for its defense giving up only five points per game this season.
11-Player Division 5
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (9-0) at Corunna (10-0) - WATCH
This is another of the most highly-anticipated games statewide as these two sit as possible Ford Field travelers on the opposite side of Division 5 from the Grand Rapids powers Catholic Central and West Catholic and reigning runner-up Frankenmuth among others in a loaded bracket. Corunna also faced an undefeated team last week, Flint Hamady, and won 45-7, while Notre Dame Prep has defeated three league champions this fall and won all of its games by at least 16 points.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Romulus Summit Academy North (8-2) at Flat Rock (7-3) - WATCH, Macomb Lutheran North (8-2) at Marine City (9-1) - WATCH. SATURDAY Kingsford (9-1) at Ogemaw Heights (9-1) - WATCH.
11-Player Division 6
Warren Michigan Collegiate (10-0) at Almont (9-1) - WATCH
This is a rematch of a 2021 District Final, won by Michigan Collegiate on the way to finishing Division 6 runner-up at Ford Field. The Cougars’ only loss of its last 19 games was to Clinton by a point in last year’s Regional Final, and Michigan Collegiate has played only one game closer than 28 points this season – a 26-20 Week 3 win over Division 4 Detroit Country Day. Almont’s lone loss came just two weeks ago to Division 5 contender Ogemaw Heights. The Raiders’ defense (10.9 ppg allowed) vs. Michigan Collegiate’s offense (43 ppg scored) should be the matchup to watch, although both teams are strong on both sides of the ball.
11-Player Division 7
Lawton (9-1) at North Muskegon (10-0), Saturday - WATCH
North Muskegon has been one of the statewide stories of the year, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 1986, and with two of those victories the only losses this season for Pewamo-Westphalia and Hart. Last week’s matchup with Union City was the Norsemen’s toughest in a month but they shined with a 27-14 win over another league champion. Lawton is coming off a tough rematch win 36-18 over Schoolcraft after those two decided a league title two weeks earlier, and its only loss was to another league champion, Division 6 Constantine, in Week 3.
11-Player Division 8
Harbor Beach (9-1) at Ubly (10-0) - WATCH
Ubly’s 56-20 win over Harbor Beach in Week 4 ended up deciding the Greater Thumb Conference East championship, but didn’t send the Pirates off course. They still haven’t given up more than 14 points in a game otherwise and made a loud statement by dealing Beal City its only regular-season defeat in Week 9. That said, Ubly never gave up more than 15 points in a game other than the 20 Harbor Beach scored and didn’t have a game closer than 22 points after missing winning last year’s Division 8 championship by a 26-20 defeat to Ottawa Lake Whiteford.
8-Player Division 1
Norway (8-2) at Pickford (9-1), Saturday - WATCH
Norway was the undefeated champion of the Great Lakes Eight Conference West, which sent three more playoff teams including three-time reigning Division 2 champion Powers North Central. Notable also, the Knights lost to Lake Linden-Hubbell 54-34 in their opener and then won a rematch 34-6 two weeks later. This too is a rematch, of Pickford’s 40-18 win in Week 7, and the Panthers are coming off a 38-16 rematch win last week over Rudyard after having edged Rudyard only 44-42 in Week 4. Pickford’s lone defeat came in its regular season finale 42-10 to St. Ignace, a possible Semifinal opponent for whichever team wins this game.
8-Player Division 2
Climax-Scotts (10-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (10-0), Saturday - WATCH
This is another matchup drawing major eyes to some of the state’s smallest schools. After seeing its two-year Division 1 title run end last year with a Regional Final loss to eventual champion Martin, Lenawee Christian has returned to domination with its closest game 20 points and an average margin of victory of 45. Climax-Scotts has played only three games closer than 30 points, including the last weeks in eight and 12-point wins over Pittsford. Climax-Scotts also has been one of the few to play Lenawee Christian tough the last two seasons, falling 28-12 in 2021 but winning last year’s meeting 28-21.
Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (9-1) at Marion (9-0) - WATCH. SATURDAY Powers North Central (8-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (7-3) - WATCH, Deckerville (8-2) at Portland St. Patrick (9-1) - WATCH.
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PHOTO Corunna's Parker Isham (5) works to get to the edge during last week's District Semifinal win over Flint Hamady. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)
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.)