When it comes to dishing out praise for the newfound success of the Bad Axe football program, those involved are doing plenty of finger pointing.
The good kind.
“I think it’s all the responsibility of our head coach, coach (Kal) Pokley,” Bad Axe senior offensive and defensive lineman Sam Hass said. “He was essential to our team – just his coaching skills and bringing us all together and getting us focused for our games.”
Pokley pointed right back.
“It really comes down to the kids and the parents,” he said. “The kids have really bought into the program. They’ve bought into our offense and our defense. They trust it, and they know it works. Because of that, we’ve been able to be more successful. They’re very hard workers, and they’ve been willing to put in the work in the offseason.”
They’re both right, and now the Hatchets are reaping the benefits. After a 2020 season that saw it win a share of the Greater Thumb Conference West title and earn its first playoff victory since 1978, Bad Axe is now off to a 5-0 start, its best since 2001.
“It’s a blast to see all of our hard work pay off – all the hard work we put in through the offseason,” junior quarterback and defensive back Keaton Braun said. “I think last year, winning our first league title in who knows how long, and our first playoff win and everything, it kind of puts in perspective how hard work can lead you in the right direction.”
Pokley took over the Bad Axe program as head coach prior to the 2020 season, after serving as a junior high and junior varsity coach the previous four seasons. He inherited a program that had a single playoff appearance (2014) since 2001, and just nine winning seasons during the playoff era (since 1975). The 1978 team lost in the Class C Final, but the three playoff wins that season represented the only three in program history prior to 2020.
But Pokley had coached the JV team to a perfect record in 2019, and saw the potential in the players within the program. While they opened the 2020 season with a 36-6 loss to Sandusky, Pokley’s optimism for the program didn’t waver, and his players backed that up, showing up early for a Sunday film session following that game. The Hatchets would win their next four, not allowing a “here we go again” attitude to creep in.
“As a coaching staff, that wasn’t going to be an option, so it wasn’t talked about,” Pokley said. “We had done some preseason polls, some meetings with the kids, and a bunch of the seniors from last year, they were very vocal early on that they weren’t OK with that, and they weren’t going to let that happen.”
The Hatchets finished the regular season 4-2, their other loss coming against Division 8 finalist Ubly, and defeated rival Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker in the opening round of the playoffs before losing 20-17 to Hemlock in the second round.
“It felt pretty good knowing that we had changed the culture,” Hass said. “For years, Bad Axe had kind of been on the (back) end of the league. Being part of a team that kind of flipped that around felt pretty good.”
That has continued into this season, as Bad Axe is perfect heading into Week 6 when it will take on another undefeated GTC West team, Reese. To get to this point, the Hatchets have ridden a balanced offensive attack and a dominant defense. After winning 42-33 in Week 1 against perennial Greater Thumb Conference contender Harbor Beach, the Hatchets have allowed just 14 points total over their past four games.
That defensive effort has been led by junior linebacker Jake MacPhee, who has 41 tackles on the season.
Offensively, the Hatchets have had multiple players stand out on different nights. Braun was the star against Harbor Beach, running for 165 yards and throwing for 146 more, along with two touchdowns. Griffin Meinhold (135 yards, two touchdowns) and Devyn Howard (116 yards, one touchdown) led the attack against Cass City, and Blake Talaski (82 yards, two touchdowns) handled things against Caro.
Braun is averaging an impressive 8.7 yards per carry through five weeks, and he’s well behind Meinhold (16.8) and Howard (17.2), who are spitting out big plays nearly every time they touch the ball.
“They’re focused, and they know they’re capable as long as they’re continuing to put in the hard work,” Pokley said. “Up to this point, they’ve really been focused on doing the right things – staying after practice, watching film, staying healthy and getting good grades. It’s really a blessing – I can’t say enough about this group of kids.”
The players said they’ve noticed a different energy around town and in their school, which has turned into big, excited crowds on Friday nights.
“There are a lot more people showing up to our games,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Austin Volmering said. “There’s a lot more cheering, and that helps us get more momentum.”
The Hatchets are hoping that momentum turns into another GTC West title, and then a longer playoff run. They aren’t shying away from the biggest of goals, either, as they feel they can play with anyone lined up in front of them. After seeing some of their league mates make deep runs, there’s a bit of a “why not us?” vibe in a program where that once seemed unthinkable.
“It motivates us a lot to see (Ubly, Harbor Beach and other GTC teams) getting to that stage in the playoffs, and know that a small-town team can play football with the bigger towns and bigger teams,” Meinhold said. “It means a lot knowing that they can do that, and we believe that we can, too.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) The Bad Axe offense, including Noah Braun (53) and Draiden Romas (24), lines up against Caro during their Week 5 matchup. (Middle) Blake Talaski (20) pulls in a touchdown grab against the Tigers. (Below) The Hatchets are off to their best season start since 2001. (Photos courtesy of the Bad Axe football program.)
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.)