MATTAWAN — When students enter one of the social studies rooms at Mattawan High School, they should not be surprised to see a white board full of Xs and Os.
It is not a game of tic-tac-toe, just a series of football plays.
With three head football coaches teaching in the same wing, there is plenty of pigskin conversation being tossed around before and after school.
Ryan Brown, who teaches social studies and power training, is in his fifth year coaching Mattawan. Wade Waldrup, who teaches social studies and English, is the first-year head coach for Lawton. And Matt Stephens, a social studies teacher, is in his fourth year guiding the program at Paw Paw.
The coaches, who are also friends, do not have to worry about going head-to-head at any time.
“There’s no chance we’ll play against each other, not in the playoffs or anything,” Waldrup said.
That is because the schools vary in enrollment enough that, should they qualify, they will end up in different MHSAA playoff divisions when those are determined after Week 9. The three schools also play in different conferences, with Mattawan in the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference West, Lawton in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Paw Paw in the Wolverine.
“I’m glad we don’t play each other because for me, I take my competition very personally and I think they’re both the same way,” Brown said. “It wouldn’t cause issues, certainly not professionally, but personally you’re not as close. You can’t share, and I would miss that.”
Added Stephens: “I appreciate the fact that I coach at a school where I come to work every day and don’t have to look at the athletes from Mattawan and know that I’m going to have to play against them.
“I think that allows me to have some comfort in that I can root for Mattawan and I can root for Lawton because I’m at a different level.”
Sharing is what the three often do, and all agree that they tap into each other’s strengths.
“Matt is more of an offensive guy,” Waldrup said. “I’m more of a defensive guy. Matt’s probably the more creative one and I think Ryan is really good at fundamentals and technique.”
Stephens said another advantage is understanding the ups and downs of the season.
“We’ve known each other for so long, honestly when one of us is down and one of us is up, it’s ‘We feel your pain,’” he said.
“It’s not this issue of we won and you didn’t. It’s more like, ‘We’ve been there before.’”
Although Lawton is 3-0 on the young season, “Matt is probably the top dog because Paw Paw (3-0) is ranked No. 1 in the state,” Waldrup said.
Mattawan is 1-2, but like Paw Paw made the playoffs last season and opened this fall with an impressive win over Kalamazoo Central.
“Honestly, rankings are just media’s way of trying to keep people interested,” Stephens said. “We’re talking to our kids about what they’re going to do to earn it. Being No. 1 is great, but Plainwell doesn’t care if we’re No. 1 and neither do any of our other opponents.
“If you get a No. 1 ranking, that just fuels the fire for other teams. We feel fortunate, blessed to be given that credit, and it’s nice for the kids. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to how you perform.”
The trio’s coaching connection goes way beyond this season.
“There’s a little bit of a coaching tree with Ryan, myself and Wade and I guess it all filters under me, but not necessarily intentionally,” Stephens said.
“I was head coach at Mattawan, so Ryan worked under me quite a while and Wade worked under me for one year before going to Constantine.”
In addition, both Stephens and Brown played football at Vicksburg High School.
Stephens was an assistant under then-coach Denny Patzer while Brown was a player there.
Brown connected with Waldrup after starting his teaching career at Mattawan 19 years ago.
“Many moons ago, Wade was my student teacher,” Brown said. “That was a fantastic experience.
“He left and went to Constantine, then came back this way.”
Waldrup said he came late to education, joining the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Clawson High School near Detroit.
He spent nine years as a Marine, then decided to go into education after returning from three years in Okinawa during Desert Storm.
Before taking the job at Lawton this year, Waldrup was Brown’s defensive coordinator at Mattawan, making a splash at the first game last season.
“Our first game last year, I always get coaches the pullovers, shorts, polos and hats, and Wade shows up wearing this gold hat and gold shirt and bright pants, and I was like ‘Where’s that from?’ Brown said, laughing.
“And he said ‘I’ve got my own stuff.’ I always tease him that he had to stand out. He was the golden child. He said he wanted the defensive guys to see him, which makes perfect sense. But at first it was like this bright yellow and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”
Stephens and Waldrup keep their teaching and coaching lives separate.
“When we’re here during the school day, we try very rarely to talk about the other schools that we coach at so we can be a fan of our kids,” said Waldrup, adding that they never wear gear from their football schools while teaching at Mattawan.
When Friday nights roll around, the three are rooting for each other, and they dissect the games on Monday.
“We throw ideas off each other absolutely all the time,” Stephens said.
Brown said there is a definite coaching connection between the three.
“There are some things only they get, only they understand,” he said. “They talk about the Presidents Club, the ex-presidents and how they’re so close after they leave office.
“That’s how I feel like with those guys. I can look at them and give them a look and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I know.’
“I always say I would want my kids to play for either one of those guys, to have that experience. They’re good men, and that’s the first mark of a good coach, I think.”
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) Clockwise from left, Paw Paw’s Matt Stephens, Mattawan’s Ryan Brown and Lawton’s Wade Waldrup all teach at Mattawan during the day and coach local varsities after class is done. (Middle) From left, Brown, Stephens and Waldrup. (Middle below) Brown prepares to talk to his team during a break. (Below) Stephens sends players back onto the field during the team’s 3-0 start. (Mattawan photos by Haley Hagen/Paw Paw Courier-Leader. Paw Paw photos by Matthew Day/Hot Shotz Photography. Lawton photo courtesy of Wade Waldrup. 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.)