OKEMOS – The football lay on the turf, landing there before the play had really begun, and the most booming voice from the tallest man on the field yelled a reassuring, “It’s OK. Let’s go,” followed the next play by “Go again,” and then “Figure it out.”
An hour earlier, first-year Okemos varsity football coach Efe Scott-Emuakpor had been on the phone asking a parent to bring the helmet and practice jersey one of his players had left at home. Nearby, another small group also stood helmetless as they hadn’t yet gotten the pre-participation physical required to join their friends on the field.
Those are typical first-day glitches no matter the school, and fall practices for all sports began Monday at 750 high schools across the state.
But those relatively minor symptoms are what Scott-Emuakpor is focused on treating in the immediate term as he takes on one of the most serious rebuilding efforts in Michigan high school football.
“This is progress,” Scott-Emuakpor said halfway through his team’s first practice, looking out at 39 players on Okemos’ game field – 33 more than showed up for his first offseason workout.
“We’d like to have everything right now. But it’s growing. It’s slowly growing.”
And after Monday, Okemos is one step closer to what would be an incredible turnaround story.
The Wolves have not won since Week 2 of the 2019 season, a stretch of 23 games. After scoring on an 84-yard run during the first quarter of last fall’s opener against Mason, Okemos didn’t score again the rest of the season.
Standing 6-foot-3, and still only a few years from his last college game as a receiver at Ball State University, Scott-Emuakpor looks capable of stepping back into a huddle at a moment’s notice. A little more than a decade ago, in 2011, he was beginning a senior season at East Lansing that would see him cap his varsity career in the MHSAA record book with 134 catches, gaining 1,624 yards, over three seasons. He also was an all-leaguer in basketball and Finals placer in high jump before joining the Cardinals.
After graduating from Ball State with a computer science bachelor’s degree, and on the way to earning his master’s in business from Saginaw Valley State University, Scott-Emuakpor came home and has worked nearly six years as a business systems analyst with Red Cedar Solutions Group on efforts including the MI School Data website.
But that’s just his fulltime job. Scott-Emuakpor also co-founded a clothing line, Live For Today, and over the last five seasons served as a volunteer assistant coach with his hometown Trojans – who have made the MHSAA Playoffs six seasons running.
He'd never applied for a head coaching job. He’d never really considered coaching at that level. In fact, he was pretty happy with how assisting at East Lansing for longtime coach Bill Feraco fit into his schedule and other pursuits.
But Scott-Emuakpor also is a studier. And as a past rival and co-member of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue, he and East Lansing saw Okemos plenty.
The Wolves had made the playoffs as recently as 2018, and won their first playoff game that season since 2011. Scott-Emuakpor had played against Okemos’ Taylor Moton, now considered one of the NFL’s top offensive tackles. And the school has had loads of success in other sports, annually ranking among the Lansing area’s best in just about all of them and coming off a statewide Division 1 championship in boys soccer from last fall.
“I paid attention to how things have been around here. And I know what they could be capable of,” Scott-Emuakpor said. “This program was once a good program that was very well-respected; I respected them playing against them in high school. They had great athletes. I think my senior year we beat them by one point (20-19 in 2011). So we had good battles.
“I just saw where they’re at. … We have some good kids around here, and I know there’s more in the school not playing. Maybe when they’re sophomores, juniors, they’ll come out. I think I’m capable of getting that interest up, getting them out on the field and just building something.”
Raj Singh is a senior this fall, one of only five or so Scott-Emuakpor is expecting to come out this week. He’s also a near all-A student, will play some quarterback and safety along with his receiver spot, and was the guy bringing carloads of classmates to workouts over the summer as he joined his coach in recruiting prospective players.
Singh is following his older brother Joe Singh, an admittedly “smaller than everyone” offensive lineman who earned all-league honors as a senior in 2017. When Joe Singh told his younger brother that playing under the lights on a Friday night is a feeling unlike any other, the idea stuck – which is why it made sense when Raj Singh fractured his wrist in Week 2 last season but was back by Week 7 despite a cast covering one hand.
Watching Singh catch passes one-handed last season during East Lansing’s 49-0 win over Okemos stuck with Scott-Emuakpor. Joe Singh had told his little bother that all that matters is having more heart than his opponent and a fighting spirit – in other words, being the type of player Scott-Emuakpor will rely on to get Okemos up and succeeding again.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 6 years old. It’s just been a dream of mine to be at this moment,” Raj Singh said.
“Coach Efe is bringing in a lot of new aspects, and that’s been very helpful to make it different than last year – make us feel a little more at home this year. Compared to last year, he’s brought a lot of structure. We’ve been really coming together as a family … and it just shows Coach Efe wants to build a community around here.”
The process is about more than building stronger, faster bodies and learning football skills and technique. The Wolves aren’t talking a lot about last year, but there’s something there to overcome – and Scott-Emuakpor started working on that soon after he was hired at the end of March.
“In the springtime, we were fortunate enough to get in the weight room and I was able to see kids put up good weight and do some things. I’d tell them, ‘You’re actually strong. You’re actually a fast kid,’” Scott-Emuakpor said. “But when you’re not successful for so long, and the way they were losing last year, it was easy for them to not feel confident, not feel they were able to ultimately get the job done. And so I was just there working on minds.”
Last season was going to be uphill for Okemos no matter what. A mid-summer coaching change brought on by a major fulltime job promotion for the former coach led to an interim staff, players leaving the program, and an applaudable effort to just keep teams on the field.
Scott-Emuakpor has surrounded himself with a staff that includes a pair of his past coaches growing up in East Lansing, past players from when he was coaching there and others with winning experience playing at DeWitt and Williamston.
In addition to what he learned playing and coaching under Feraco, Scott-Emuakpor brings a ton of insight from his experiences at Ball State; he had only one catch during his college career while battling injuries, but he spent that time on the sideline observing his coaches and taking mental notes. Just Sunday, he was pulling from the 2012-13 Ball State football handbook a few details to incorporate into his work in progress with the Wolves.
Okemos will have varsity and freshman teams this fall, and the majority of players at Monday’s combined practice were juniors and sophomores – so recruiting remains ongoing. But Singh said the number of classmates who did come out Monday exceeded his expectations – and that just added to the excitement of starting again.
“If you walk through the school, you’ll see some guys, you’ll (say), ‘OK, what does that guy do?’ You find out he plays (only) lacrosse, or only wrestles, where in other areas, other schools, they might do everything because that’s what they do, what they’ve grown up doing” Scott-Emuakpor said. “I’ve been trying to rebuild that connection, that love for football. A lot of them are very intrigued; I feel like some of them are kinda peeking and saying, ‘What’s going on? This new coach seems to be young and interesting.’ And I’ve just been trying to stay focused on the process and not get too far ahead of myself.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in January 2012, and MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS (Top) First-year Okemos varsity football coach Efe Scott-Emuakpor, middle, huddles up his players during Monday's first day of practice. (2) Scott-Emuakpor confers with senior Raj Singh on blocking from his receiver position. (3) The Wolves work on offense during the first part of their Monday session. (4) Scott-Emuakpor speaks with his team at the start of the workout. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)
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.)