By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
The Whitehall vs. Montague football game actually begins on Thursday night far away from any football field, with a huge crowd from each town, bands, cheerleaders, players, coaches and school officials.
For the coin toss.
In a scene reminiscent of a Revolutionary War battle, the aforementioned delegations marched toward each other on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, and met – Whitehall in red and Montague in blue – on the bridge over the White River, which separates the two northern Muskegon County towns.
No shots were fired or punches thrown, but simply a coin was tossed high in the air by veteran MHSAA official Chuck Hulce (who, by the way, coached Montague from 1969 to 1977 and then Whitehall from 1979 to 1981) and the 110th edition of the “The Battle for the Bell” was underway.
“This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life – playing Whitehall, the cross-town rival where I know everyone, my senior year,” said Montague senior wide receiver Josh Weesies. “It’s huge for me. We’ve been grinding all summer just thinking about this game.”
Montague, with a population of 2,361 and covering 3.27 square miles, boasts the World’s Largest Working Weathervane and 1961 Miss America Nancy Fleming – and boasted a 59-48-2 edge in the all-time series over Whitehall heading into this year’s game.
Whitehall, with a population of 2,706 and covering 3.79 square miles, counters with the historic Howmet Playhouse and 11-year Major League Baseball player and Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth, who quarterbacked the Vikings to back-to-back wins in the series in 1998 and 1999.
The game has always been about bragging rights, but this year’s clash was much more. For the first time since 1985, both teams came into the game undefeated and both were state-ranked. Whitehall was 4-0 and ranked eighth in the Associated Press Division 4 poll, while Montague was also 4-0 and ranked sixth in Division 5.
The pre-game festivities on Sept. 22 were all about White Lake area unity as the two communities came together for a “Pink Out” event to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital and the fight against cancer – and the marching bands even performed together on the field before the game.
Then it was time to take sides.
“This rivalry is very special for me,” said Whitehall senior quarterback Casey Huizenga. “I know all the Montague kids. We’re friends, but during this game we’re going all out.”
Huizenga and Whitehall actually struck first in the game, which was played on a perfect early fall night in front of 5,000 fans at Montague.
Whitehall junior Tylor Russell returned the opening kickoff deep into Montague territory, setting up a 1-yard plunge by Huizenga for a quick 6-0 Vikings’ lead.
But it didn’t take long for Montague’s myriad offensive weapons to come out. On the ensuing possession, Montague senior quarterback Dylan Stever (good friends with Huizenga, incidentally) connected with junior Jake Jancek on a 16-yard touchdown pass to tie the score.
Jancek was the first of six Wildcats to score touchdowns in the game, which featured 40 points in the first quarter alone, with Montague holding a 27-13 edge. Also scoring for the Wildcats were junior Eddie Caviedes, sophomore Bryce Stark, Weesies, sophomore Kenyon Johnston and Stever.
The difference in the game was Montague’s defense completely shutting down the Whitehall offense after the first quarter.
Whitehall’s only score after the first 12 minutes was a 90-yard interception return by junior Justin Brown in the fourth quarter, which completed the scoring in a decisive 41-20 Montague victory. The night ended with fans heading for their cars and the Wildcats ringing the red, white and blue victory bell for the ninth time in the last 11 years.
“It’s fun to be here with the whole community at one game,” said 13th-year Montague coach Pat Collins, who played quarterback and led the Wildcats to the 1992 Class CC championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, where they lost to Detroit dePorres, 12-7. “It’s a real special moment every year up here.”
Collins has turned Montague into a state football powerhouse, as it’s made the MHSAA Playoffs in 11 of his first 12 seasons as head coach. What is more impressive is what his teams have done once they get there. Montague made it at least to the third round of the playoffs eight straight years from 2004 to 2011, at least to the Semifinals five straight years from 2005 to 2009 and won back-to-back Division 6 championships in 2008 and 2009.
Montague (5-1), which was upset by North Muskegon in the rain on Sept. 30, is heavily favored at Hart this week, which would set up a showdown at Muskegon Oakridge (5-1) on Oct. 14 for the West Michigan Conference title. For the playoffs, Montague’s enrollment has increased to 414 and the Wildcats are now considered a “bubble team” which could end up in either Division 5 or Division 6.
Whitehall (4-2), a larger school with 654 students, could clinch its third-straight Division 4 playoff berth with two wins over its final three games, starting with this week’s showdown at Ravenna (4-2).
While Montague has been a model of stability with just two head football coaches during the past 31 years (Ken Diamond from 1986 to 2003 and Collins from 2004 to present), Whitehall has been just the opposite.
The Vikings have had five different head coaches since 2002, but it appears they have found their man in Dewitt native Tony Sigmon, who has a 19-9 record over the past three seasons after a 1-8 start in his first season in 2013.
For Sigmon, the first step to competing for West Michigan Conference titles and MHSAA playoff victories is being able to consistently go toe-to-toe with rival Montague.
“This game, this rivalry is what high school football is all about,” Sigmon said. “It’s a game that has become a huge community event, and it drives both teams to keep getting better.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Montague players gather to ring the trophy bell after Montague defeated Whitehall, 41-20, in the "The Battle for the Bell." (Middle) Montague junior Jake Jancek elevates to grab this 16-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Stever in the first quarter, while Whitehall's JoJo Dowdell defends. (Below) The Whitehall and Montague bands performed together before the big game between the two northern Muskegon County schools. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)