By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
During a football season full of new and different this fall, this weekend will be right up there for first-time opportunities.
With the regular season shortened to six games because of COVID-19 precautions, tonight begins the first MHSAA Playoffs with nearly every team in the state taking part. And with more playoff games than ever before, this first round will see 15 games played Thursday night.
The 11-player bracket kicks off with District First Round games, while 8-player begins in the Regional First Round. Click for links to all 10 brackets and monitor the MHSAA Score Center all weekend for scores as they come in.
Spectator limits remain in effect (check with your local school for purchasing information). So if you can’t attend in person, check out one or more of 87 games being broadcast on MHSAA.tv or FOX Sports Detroit.
Let’s take a glance at a game that jumps out from each division this opening weekend. Games below are Friday unless noted.
Lake Orion (3-2) at Grand Blanc (5-1)
The Bobcats haven’t reached the second round of the playoffs since 2012, but have seemed on the verge of taking a step – and last week’s 14-13 win over previously-undefeated Saline provided an indication the time may be now. Lake Orion had trouble with league rivals Clarkston and West Bloomfield this fall, but has to be one of the stronger five seeds – this District is topped by three undefeated teams.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (3-3) at Davison (6-0), Utica Eisenhower (2-4) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (2-3). SATURDAY East Kentwood (2-3) at Hudsonville (4-2), Detroit Western (5-1) at Dearborn Fordson (4-2).
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern (4-2) vs. Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (5-1) at Forest Hills Eastern
Everything looks to be going the Rangers’ way heading into this rematch, as they’ve won all five recent meetings with Forest Hills Northern – including 28-13 in Week 5 – and picked up a share of the Ottawa-Kent Conference White championship with Friday’s win over Lowell. But the Huskies are on a roll too; they’ve won their last four games, all by double digits, and also including a victory over the Red Arrows.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lowell (3-3) at Byron Center (5-1), Warren De La Salle Collegiate (2-4) at Roseville (4-2), Ypsilanti Community (3-3) at Dearborn Heights Crestwood (5-1), Birmingham Groves (3-3) at Auburn Hills Avondale (3-3).
Trenton (3-3) at Allen Park (4-2)
These Downriver League rivals also have met in the playoffs the last two seasons. Allen Park won both of those games and also this regular season’s opener, 29-7. But that’s only half the history. Before this fall’s first meeting, Trenton had taken the last three during the regular season. Semi-related, both played Brownstown Woodhaven to nearly matching one-score losses over the last five weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Parma Western (4-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-2), Sturgis (3-3) at Coldwater (4-2), Garden City (3-3) at South Lyon East (4-2), Gibraltar Carlson (4-2) at River Rouge (4-1).
Imlay City (4-2) at Croswell-Lexington (5-1)
This is a rematch of a season opener, won by the Pioneers 54-12. But the Spartans have gone on to guarantee their second-straight winning finish (after a string of mostly sub-.500 seasons over the last decade). That said, Croswell-Lexington was a seven-point loss to North Branch from a perfect regular season and league title – also a good improvement story after finishing 4-5 a year ago.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Ada Forest Hills Eastern (3-3) at Allendale (3-3), Plainwell (3-2) at Vicksburg (4-2), Armada (3-3) at Goodrich (5-1), Detroit Henry Ford (3-3) at Detroit Country Day (3-2).
Belding (5-1) at Hopkins (5-1), Saturday
This is among the most surprising first-round matchups, as these two played for the O-K Silver championship just three weeks ago. Chalk it up to being in a District that includes an unbeaten team and four at 5-1. The Vikings’ got the best of their first meeting with Belding, 34-28, but are coming back off a week off while the Black Knights went on to win their last two games by a combined 108-3.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lake Odessa Lakewood (3-3) at Portland (5-1), South Haven (4-2) at Dowagiac (3-3), Hillsdale (4-2) at Olivet (5-1). SATURDAY Ogemaw Heights (3-3) at Kingsford (3-2).
Kent City (5-1) at Clare (6-0)
This is another big-time matchup for the first round, with third-seeded Clare the Jack Pine Conference champion and sixth-seeded Kent City the winner of the Central State Activities Association Silver title. The Eagles’ lone loss came in last week’s finale, 26-20 to Muskegon Orchard View, and they’ll surely be revved up play spoiler this time. But they’ll have to figure out a Pioneers defense giving up only 9.3 points per game in what could be a low-scoring one – Kent City gives up just 8.8 on average.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Negaunee (3-3) at Gladstone (2-3), Harrison (4-2) at Sanford Meridian (4-2), Comstock (3-3) at Niles Brandywine (3-3). SATURDAY Flint Hamady (3-3) at Detroit Pershing (3-3).
Houghton Lake (4-2) at Evart (4-2)
In just six games, Evart tied its win total from a year ago and best season since 2016. After opening 0-2, the Wildcats got rolling with a 29-22 win over Houghton Lake and now are seeking their first playoff win since 2012. The Bobcats are coming off a loss to undefeated Oscoda but still guaranteed to end with their third winning season in four years. Whoever comes out on top in this rematch will see Highland Conference champ McBain next week.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Morley Stanwood (4-2) at Ravenna (3-3), Hesperia (4-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (5-1), Delton Kellogg (3-3) at Bronson (3-2), Jackson Lumen Christi (2-4) at Hanover-Horton (4-2).
Gwinn (3-3) at East Jordan (3-3)
One of these teams will end the night celebrating its first playoff win since 1999 – both are seeking to break a two-decade drought. After a fast start, East Jordan has had some troubles especially on offense the last two weeks – but with one more win, the Red Devils would equal their total from last season. Gwinn is a tough read because two wins came by forfeit. But a 22-14 loss two weeks ago to undefeated West Iron County is an indication the Modeltowners will be up for this challenge.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Frankfort (3-3) at Saginaw Nouvel (4-2), Marlette (3-3) at Unionville-Sebewaing (4-2), Saugatuck (3-3) at White Pigeon (3-2). SATURDAY Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (2-4) at Harbor Beach (3-3).
Deckerville (4-2) at Merrill (5-1), Saturday
Deckerville had a few stumbles against the co-champions in its league, but few programs have done the playoffs better over the last decade – Deckerville is 16-7 during the postseason since moving to 8-player in 2012. Merrill is the latest new force in 8-player, not entirely surprising after back-to-back 6-4 finishes in 11-player the last two seasons, and will be looking to extend the run into its first playoff win since 2010.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Genesee (4-2) at Mayville (6-0). SATURDAY Newberry (3-3) at Onaway (6-0), International Academy of Flint (3-3) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (6-0), Camden-Frontier (2-4) at New Buffalo (3-3).
Lake Linden-Hubbell (3-3) at Crystal Falls Forest Park (4-1), Saturday
These longtime league and occasional playoff rivals in 11-player will face off for the first time in 8-player – and first time at all since 2015 since Lake Linden-Hubbell made the format switch this fall. The Lakes are 3-1 on the field and gave undefeated Powers North Central easily its closest game, falling 34-22 two weeks ago. Forest Park has played two games on the field, but both were wins over teams that entered the postseason with .500 records.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Rudyard (3-3) at Rapid River (5-1), Climax-Scotts (3-3) at Colon (5-1). SATURDAY Ashley (3-3) at Peck (3-3), Waldron (4-2) at Tekonsha (4-2).
PHOTO by Robert Batzloff.
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.)