DETROIT – Thirty-three years ago, Lynn Sanders graduated from Detroit Central. And before he left, he made a promise.
Last year, Sanders showed he is a man of his word.
Sanders, 51, is in his second season as the head football coach at Central. Once a proud program under legendary coach Woody Thomas (who died in 2002), the program had wavered a bit. Coaches like Michael Thornhill, who took over for Thomas in 2002, Eric Smith, Robert Hunt and others have had some success. But stability within the program, especially in recent years, had been missing.
Many of the high school-age students in the neighborhood were attending schools elsewhere in the city. Now-closed Detroit Allen Academy, a charter school near Central, was one alternative. Open enrollment throughout the school district also allowed students to attend any school in Detroit, and many were taking advantage of the opportunity.
Since Sanders’ arrival, and because of his standing in the community, many of those in the neighborhood have decided to remain. Sanders and his staff have been able to make the Trailblazers relevant again, and there’s a renewed respect for the program. Central is 4-1 and 2-1 in the Detroit Public School League Black division and faces Detroit Pershing (1-4, 0-3) this week before taking on Detroit Martin Luther King (4-1, 3-0), one of the state’s elite programs, on Oct. 6.
“When I was 18, I told Coach Thomas I would replace him,” Sanders said. “It took a while.”
The rewards have come quickly.
Last fall in Sanders’ debut, and for the second time in school history, the Trailblazers won two playoff games in a season and finished 7-5. And they led Millington 20-0 in a Division 6 Regional Final before falling 22-20.
There had been success in the recent past. Central tied a school record for victories in a season with a 9-3 finish in 2010. In 2012, the Trailblazers began a run of making the playoffs in three of the next five years, each time finishing 6-4 – although the playoff appearances in 2014 and 2015 ended quickly as Central lost first-round games by a combined score of 107-14.
The Trailblazers took a sizable next step led by someone taking his first at the high school level. Sanders had never been a head coach, but he brought a long list of credentials while working with youth football. A 27-year veteran with the Michigan State Police, Sanders spent 10 years as the president of the Southfield Ravens, a Pop Warner program for players aged 8-11. He spent three years as a league commissioner within Pop Warner in southeastern Michigan. For two years he was a regional commissioner for American Youth Football (AYF).
Before getting the Central job, Sanders worked under coach Keith Stephens at Oak Park and then with Stephens at Southfield-Lathrup as his offensive coordinator.
Then there was a knock on the door of opportunity.
“I got a call from David Oclander, who was the (Central) principal then,” Sanders said. “We met and he told me what he was looking for. He knew of me, knew I was a Central grad, and he told me he wanted to turn things around.
“When I got here the team GPA was 1.9. The first day I called a meeting. I had all of the guys who wanted to play be there. When I gave that speech, I could tell they weren’t really happy. I was their third coach in three years, and I think they felt betrayed. They weren’t really interested. A number of them were looking at their phones, not paying attention. I told them here are my rules, my expectations and if you don’t like it you can leave. About half of them did. Fifteen stayed.”
It didn’t take long for Sanders to build upon those numbers. His association with Pop Warner and coaches in the area helped spread the word that expectations would rise.
In the meantime, Allen Academy closed following the 2015-16 school year and many of those students went to Central – including some athletes who had played on a Wildcats team that finished 5-4 in 2015.
Central didn’t have a freshmen or junior varsity team, but Sanders was able to gather 36 for the varsity. He has 32 this season.
“When I took the job I got phone calls from all over the place,” he said. “Coaches, former players, they all wanted to help. They’d do anything for me. I was well-respected, and the kids started to come. Instead of taking buses out of the neighborhood and going elsewhere, they stayed home. And they were good kids. I set some high expectations. Those that didn’t want to follow got shipped out.”
Sanders and Oclander saw eye-to-eye on many issues. The main objective was to instill discipline, and both came from a background where discipline was paramount: Sanders with the state police, Oclander as a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
Sanders looked to improve the quality of coaching his players were to receive in two ways. The first came during the offseason. He knew his players didn’t have the finances to go to camps, even if they were close by at places like Wayne State University. Instead, Sanders brought the college coaches to Central. Staffs from Northwood University, Eastern Michigan and Wayne State all came to Central to conduct a camp.
“That had never been done before at Central,” Sanders said.
The second was to convince coaches in the area that Central was the place to be. Eighteen said yes. Do the math: That’s more than one coach for every two players. It’s safe to say that’s a unique situation – and has led to an almost unheard of type of mentoring process.
And the players are reaping the results. Eight players from last year’s team are playing college football. Five players from this year’s team have made verbal commitments to a college or university, including El Julian Jordan. Jordan, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound quarterback who played his first two years of high school football at King, has accepted a scholarship to Western Michigan.
It was a big change for Jordan to go from a program like King, with 1,400 students, to Central where the enrollment is 370.
“It was a tough transition,” he said. “The kids in school were different. This school is so small, but I like it that way. I can focus more on my grades and such.
“I look up to (Sanders). He’s molded me into a leader. I lead by example. My first impression of Coach was a positive one, and that’s good.”
Jordan has had a fine season to this point, completing 56 of 95 attempts for 1,239 yards, 13 touchdowns and with no interceptions. He’s scored three rushing touchdowns.
“He’s a special kid,” Sanders said. “I don’t think anyone has put him in the position of being a leader before. After time, he knew he could trust me. He’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s a quiet kid until you get to know him. As we made our run in the (playoffs), the different (officiating) crews would watch him warm up. He can throw the ball 70 yards. And they couldn’t wait to see him in action.”
Other top players include a bevy of receivers including Jerodd Vines, TaQuan Snead and Brandon Cooper.
Central returned all five offensive linemen from a season ago including Jamauri’a Carter (5-10, 305). Carter, Snead and Jordan all played on the Eastside Raiders in the Police Athletic League (PAL) before high school.
Sanders’ stay at Central could be a brief one. He and wife, Kathy, who were high school sweethearts, have four children including three sons. One, Londale Sanders, is a junior linebacker at University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. They recently returned on Sunday after watching their son play in last Saturday’s 34-27 overtime victory at Jackson State.
Another son, Lance Sanders, is one of the offensive line coaches at Central.
“I don’t know how long I’ll do it,” Lynn Sanders said. “I wanted to turn things around. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I told my wife three years, tops, and see what happens. At least Central is back where parents, the people in the neighborhood are coming back. The kids are getting better. The test will be against King.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Central quarterback El Julian Jordan warms up before a game. (Middle top) Lynn Sanders, left, and offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers. (Middle below) Jordan surveys the field looking for a receiver. (Below) Sanders and wife Kathy. (Photos courtesy of Lynn Sanders and Detroit Central football.)
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.)