CLIMAX — Braden Butler plans to make history twice at Climax-Scotts High School – and he is already halfway there.
Butler and his teammates are part of the last 11-player football team at the school.
Next year, the underclassmen will make their debut in 8-player football, a first for the small school.
With just 148 students in grades 9-12, the Panthers are the smallest public school in Michigan to field an 11-player team.
Only the Detroit Catholic League’s Waterford Our Lady and Clarkston Everest Collegiate have smaller enrollments.
“I’m blessed to be in the position of being on the first 8-man team for next year,” said Butler, who was tagged with the nickname ‘Shakespeare” by coach Kevin Langs after the 20-year coach’s former nickname for him morphed from “2 B” to “2 B or not 2 B.”
“I’m very happy with my teammates, with my coaches, with how we’ve all planned this out. It’s going to be a very eye-opening experience for the rest of my life.”
Although the school is small, it has been successful, qualifying for the playoffs the past 15 years. But Climax-Scotts faces a must-win scenario this week to earn one more trip before next year’s switch.
The Panthers take a 3-4 record into their final regular-season game, a four-plus hour journey to Lincoln Alcona on Friday. With a 4-4 record, the team would have a chance at an at-large playoff berth. The field will be announced Sunday night.
“Fortunately, because of a couple of generous donors, we will travel on a charter bus for that trip,” Langs said.
“If we can get playoffs, our season will go down in history,” Butler said. “We played the top teams in the state, top-ranked teams. We’ve played teams that have gone undefeated until now, and we’ve competed against all of those teams which is honestly the best part of the season.”
The Panthers defeated Martin (26-0), Adrian Lenawee Christian (62-20) and Athens (28-14), and lost to Sand Creek (27-16), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (44-38 in 2OT), Pittsford (17-16) and Breckenridge (19-0). Pittsford and Lenawee Christian joined Climax-Scotts in sharing the Southern Central Athletic Association title, and Breckenridge and Everest Collegiate won their respective leagues as well.
Sand Creek, Martin and Athens can clinch automatic playoff berths with wins this weekend.
Langs, who is also athletic director, said the school has been preparing the athletes and the community for the switch to 8-player for three years.
“It’s been a process,” Langs said. “Twenty-10 was the MHSAA’s first year going 8-man. We’ve been across the state talking to the U.P., all over, trying to see what we could do to save small-school 11-man. And lost that fight.
“About three years ago, we had a community meeting because we could see this coming. We just said, ‘Hey, listen. We’re going to try to hold out through this year, 2018, and after that financially, physically, mentally, emotionally, we’re going to go 8-man.’”
The 18 seniors on this year’s team were a big reason the Panthers kept 11-player this year.
“When you go to 8, you lose six starters,” Langs said “Those are a lot of young men who couldn’t have played.
“So we were willing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it so these young men still get to play instead of taking their spots away.’”
Senior defensive lineman/fullback Hunter Mejeur has mixed feelings about missing a chance to play next year.
“I think it would be unique to play 8-man,” he said. “I’ve never done it before, but I think it’s cool to leave a legacy as the last 11-man team.”
He said there are both advantages and disadvantages to small school 11-player football.
“There’s no backup really. There’s one backup lineman, a couple running backs,” he said, adding, “The best part is getting to play a lot.”
Butler said going to 8-player will be nothing new for most of the underclassmen.
“Our first year of 8-man in junior varsity, we only lost one game out of eight,” he said. “Hopefully that transitions into varsity so next year we hopefully see the same outcome. I’m really excited for it.”
Climax-Scotts is just one of four teams playing 11-player in the 15-school SCAA.
The others are Athens, Adrian Lenawee Christian and Pittsford.
Switching to 8-player, the Panthers will renew their rivalry with Battle Creek St. Philip.
“They’re our archrivals and we haven’t played them in seven or eight years, so we’re excited to play them again,” Langs said.
With just three league games, Langs had to find six more opponents – resulting in just one home game this season, the win over Lenawee Christian.
The Panthers suffered a blow during that game.
“(Senior quarterback) Jake Lane, a three-year starter, on a two-point conversion, hurt his shoulder, so he’s out,” Langs said.
“We lost our center, (senior) Noah Gray, too. It’s like losing your middle infield. Hopefully, it’s like the old saying, ‘Next brother up, next man up.’”
With an unfilled Week 4, Climax-Scotts will finish the regular season with only eight games.
“We have been so blessed to have some successful teams over the last 20 years, so people always remember that,” Langs said. “So, when you go to schedule, they’re hesitant, which I understand.
“What happens is, if they’re willing to play you, they’re going to be really, really good or a lot bigger than you, and then they say you’ve got to play us at our place.”
Langs said the team worked hard the last 20 years to become one of the better 11-player programs in the state.
“So now, old dog, new tricks,” he said. “What can we do at 8-man? We don’t know. So we’re going to find out.
“I think the biggest transition is going to be the vertical spacing of the game. There’s a little bit more space for people to run and you can’t cover.”
He compares the change to math.
“For two years I said 11-man is algebra; 8-man is geometry. They’re both math, but there’s a conceptual difference.
“I’ve noticed that I’ve had to get used to that, and we’re slowly starting to figure out the geometry thing a little better.”
Other seniors on the team are Luke Mobley, Brock Borden, Zachary Sleeman, Jordan Tutt, Cole Eshuis, Sabdiel Escobedo, David Arnett, Erik Reyes, Dylan Peck, Alec Roggow, Michael Minne, Cooper Simmons, Jason Myers, Andrew Elenga and Todd Sims.
Juniors include Blake Borden, Lane Glover, Johnny Hunter, Josiah Kenney, Geano Royle, Jackson Ling, Alexandro Rojas and Ethan Huff.
The five sophomores are Ernesto Escobedo, Nathan Peck, Cole Newton, Andrew VanMiddlesworth and Ian Strong. Jackson Lawrence is the lone freshman.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Climax-Scotts’ defensive front breaks toward the play during a Week 1 win over Martin. (Middle) From top, coach Kevin Langs, junior Branden Butler and senior Hunter Mejeur. (Below) The Panthers’ offense is on the move against Athens in Week 7. (Action photos by Mary Longman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.)