By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – Davison senior wide receiver Latrell Fordham strolled into the postgame press conference with his left arm in a sling, and an enormous smile on his face.
Fordham played a huge role in Davison’s 35-25 victory over Brighton in the MHSAA Division 1 Final on Saturday at Ford Field – before landing awkwardly and fracturing his left elbow late in the second quarter.
“It hurts a lot, and I need surgery, but winning a state championship overrides all of that,” said Fordham, a 6-foot-3 Ball State commit who had four catches for 88 yards before his injury, including an electrifying 74-yard sprint along the Davison sideline that helped his team assume control in the second quarter.
Davison (12-2) won the first football Finals championship in school history and the first title for a Saginaw Valley League school since 1999 Saginaw High, which was led by Charles Rogers and also featured LaMarr Woodley.
The Cardinals, who had won their first four playoff games in come-from-behind fashion powered by their running game, shifted gears completely Saturday.
Davison never trailed and pulled away behind an impressive passing attack, as 6-3 junior quarterback Brendan Sullivan completed 14-of-19 passes for 290 yards. He connected with six receivers.
Brighton coach Brian Lemons said after the game that his team was committed to shutting down the run, which made it susceptible through the air.
“We had to pick our poison,” said Lemons, whose team stunned top-ranked Belleville 22-19 in the Semifinals to earn its first Finals appearance. “We had some single coverage, and they did a great job of connecting in those situations.”
Sullivan opened the scoring on a one-yard plunge in the first quarter set up by a crucial two-yard, fourth-down completion to Fordham and a 14-yard pass to Harrison Terry on the next play. Terry led all receivers with six catches for 94 yards.
After a Brighton field goal narrowed the lead to 7-3 in the second quarter, second-year Davison coach Jake Weingartz seized on an opportunity to go for a home run.
“We had trips (three receivers) to one side and Latrell by himself on the other side,” explained Weingartz. “He had single coverage and the safety shaded to the trips side. We had to take a shot. We’re not going to beat our head against the wall and try to run against a loaded front.”
Fordham took off on a straight go route along the Davison sideline and Sullivan delivered a strike, which Fordham caught in stride as he sprinted the rest of the way for a 74-yard score and 14-3 lead.
“We were waiting for the right moment, and on that play we had the matchup we wanted,” explained Fordham, who expects to miss a good portion of basketball season, but hopes to be back by March. “Brendan made a perfect throw. I just had to grab it and take it to the house.”
That play brought the huge crowd from Davison to its feet and seemingly opened the floodgates. The Cardinals scored on a one-yard run by Carter Cryderman before halftime and a 10-yard scramble run by Sullivan early in the third quarter to take a seemingly comfortable 28-3 lead.
Brighton (11-3) showed no quit, however, led by dual-threat senior quarterback Colby Newburg and junior running back Nicholas Nemecek.
The Bulldogs scored 16 points in a row – on a one-yard run by Nemecek and a 27-yard pass from Newburg to Nemecek (along with a pair of 2-point conversions) – to close to within 28-19 with four minutes remaining, bringing the orange-clad Brighton fans to life.
Newburg, a 6-0, 190-pound senior, completed 16-of-28 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran 22 times for 83 yards.
“All I can say is that I’m super proud of everybody,” said Newburg. “We fought to the end.”
With Brighton back within striking distance, Sullivan took his turn in the quarterback shootout.
He connected with senior Caleb Smith on a 63-yard pass down to the 1-yard line, which Cryderman took in on the next play to push the lead back to 35-19.
Even then, Brighton was still not done, as Newburg completed six passes on the next drive, including a three-yard TD connection with Austin Lin with 43 seconds remaining. It wasn’t until the ensuing 2-point conversion pass fell incomplete that the game was decided.
Davison finished with a slight 441-425 edge in total yardage, but it was the efficiency of Sullivan through the air which proved to be the difference.
“I told my coach to trust me in this game,” said Sullivan, who stepped up as a junior on the biggest stage. “I want the ball in my hands in those pressure situations.”
The game featured two schools making their first appearances in the Finals, which is becoming more and more rare after 45 years of MHSAA Playoffs, which began in 1975.
That first-time excitement was apparent as both communities turned out in droves at Ford Field, Brighton in orange and Davison in gold.
Adding to the excitement was the fact neither team was expected to make a long playoff run after finishing second in their respective conferences – Davison in the Saginaw Valley League Red (behind Lapeer) and Brighton in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association West (behind Plymouth).
Davison senior linebacker Logan Pasco was all over the field with a game-high 16 tackles, while Smith had nine tackles and defensive end Harry Unger made seven stops. Ian Hummel led Brighton with eight tackles, and Cole Riddle and Carson Billig each made six.
PHOTOS: (Top) Davison celebrates its first MHSAA Football Finals championship Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Brighton’s Ruben Salinas (1) keeps his eyes on a pass as Davison’s JayLen Murray Flowers works to deflect it.
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.)