By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Terry Hessbrook has sensed this level of buzz around Ithaca's football program once before.
He was a senior running back during the 1984 "dream season" when the team finished the regular season 9-0 and made the playoffs for the first time. The Yellowjackets' postseason run lasted only a week – Ithaca fell to Grand Rapids South Christian 20-0 in the first round, which in those days of shorter playoffs was the Regional Final – but the excitement was reminiscent of the attention his program is getting heading into Friday's Division 6 District Final against Hemlock.
Except this hype extends far outside the city limits of his 2,900-resident hometown. Ithaca has won 38 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in MHSAA football history, and is only three more wins from a third straight trip to the Finals at Ford Field.
“It’s been really neat to have people take a look at what we’re doing in Ithaca,” Hessbrook said. “We’re not doing anything different. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not a bunch of geniuses or anything like that. We just have a coaching staff that works really hard and supports each other, and we don’t care who gets the credit. And the players don’t care who gets the credit.”
How much the ninth-year coach is beaming comes through the phone as he talks of his players' handling of the growing expectations or how fortunate he is to be surrounded by assistants he's been close with, in at least a few cases, for decades.
And winning makes everything more fun. The Yellowjackets get a Second Half High 5 this week as they work toward becoming just the fifth school to win three straight MHSAA titles since the first playoffs were held in 1975. The winning streak is the third-longest among those that included at least one season since the postseason was added.
Ahead of Ithaca on that consecutive wins list are Hudson (72), Morenci (44), Cheboygan (43) and New Lothrop (39). But only Cheboygan accomplished its streak completely within the playoff era, with Hudson’s coming to an end in the first MHSAA Class C Final.
Making this run more special is that half the team has been together for nearly all of it.
Hessbrook brought his players into a huddle at the start of practice this August, and as he started looking at their faces, a thought crossed his mind.
“Wow, you guys have been around for a long time,” he told them.
Ithaca’s football players haven’t been around any longer than those on any other team in Michigan. But it sure feels that way. The Yellowjackets have played in 12 playoff games over the last three years, and five seniors who moved to varsity at the start of 2010 – receiver Markes Gadlen, linebackers Tyler Gibson and Jacob Barnes and linemen Bradley Martyn and Josh Capen – have played in 38 varsity games. That’s the equivalent of more than four regular seasons. And the team's other 12 seniors all came up for the playoffs in 2010, giving them more postseason experience than perhaps any group currently playing in this state.
During that 2010 run, they felt like they were along for the ride. Last season’s championship was about seniors like Garrett Miniard and David Brown showing they could win one too after following all-state quarterback Alex Niznak’s lead the year before. Now, these seniors similarly want to be the leaders of another title run.
But Hessbrook is sure to credit one more group – the 2009 team that played in the team's first MHSAA Semifinal.
“In 2009, that group of players raised the bar, and they made it possible, although they didn’t win,” Hessbrook said. “They didn’t get to the big game. But in 2009, for one quarter (in the Semifinal), we played with Montague (which went on to finish 14-0).
“The bar has been raised. I don’t know that the goal now is to (just) get into the playoffs. I think the kids are hungry enough that they don’t want to just get in. They want to get in and make noise.”
The name statewide observers are coming to know is that of junior quarterback Travis Smith. He took over in the 2011 opener and quarterbacked the team through the 42-14 championship game win over Constantine, throwing for 299 yards – fifth-best all-time for an MHSAA championship game.
His numbers this fall say plenty – 107 completions in 175 attempts for 1,696 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Smith also leads the team with 610 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He’s 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and already getting the college looks that came to Niznak during his senior season after he’d already committed to Central Michigan.
Total, the team is outscoring opponents on average 53-6. The defense is a little smaller but faster this fall, and is averaging exactly three turnovers per game.
Another stat helps it all make more sense. Teams submit the grade-point average for their top 11 players for academic all-state – and Ithaca’s group comes in at 3.85.
And visitors to Ithaca don’t get the feel they’re in a small town once they enter the stadium. Recent renovations included the addition of viewing platforms 15 feet above the track that put fans closer to the field than the first row of bleachers. There are new bathrooms and a larger concessions area, but the biggest blast comes from the 13 by 24-foot Jumbotron scoreboard that’s made the stadium feel more like the home of a Division II college team.
Hessbrook estimates at least 2,000 fans are showing up for home games, and similarly large crowds have followed his team on the road.
To Ithaca’s credit, the team is taking all of this in stride. It’s not that the streak isn’t a big deal – “It is what it is,” Hessbrook said – but the players just don’t talk about it too much.
“They’re really a mature group of seniors, really grounded, from great families with great parents who are very supportive of what we’re doing and just keep their kids grounded. The coaching staff does a good job keeping the kids grounded," Hessbrook said. "You’re only as good as your last game. Nobody’s going to care what you did last week or last month. And I think the players believe that.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca's Caden Kipp and Zach Allen (12) celebrate after a touchdown during last week's win over Grandville Calvin Christian. (Middle) Quarterback Travis Smith already is in the MHSAA record book for his performance during last season's Division 6 Final. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com).
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.)