DETROIT – Basketball used to be king in Detroit. Detroit Public School League teams like Detroit Cooley, Detroit Pershing, Detroit Southwestern and others won MHSAA championships and sent numerous players on to college to play at major universities like Michigan, Michigan State and others.
Recently the quality of basketball has taken a step back, and football has taken center stage.
This past March, Detroit Western International was the first PSL team to win the Class A boys basketball title since Pershing in 2009 and just the second since Detroit Central won the Class A title in 1998. This is a far cry from what is considered one of the glory eras in PSL history. From 1987-94, teams from the PSL won eight consecutive Class A titles.
(It should be noted that Detroit Renaissance did win Class B titles in 2004 and 2006, and Detroit Crockett also won the Class B title in 2001.)
In 2007 Detroit King was the first PSL team to win a football state title. For those outside of the city, it might not have meant that much other than a simple statistic. But for the PSL coaches who longed for respect statewide, King’s victory over Midland in the Division 2 Final was vindication.
When Detroit Cass Tech won back-to-back Division 1 titles (2011, 2012) a few years later, football fans across the state began to realize that what King accomplished in 2007 was not a fluke. Teams from Detroit were relevant statewide.
This weekend another first will take place. King will play for the Division 2 title (against Lowell) on Friday and Cass Tech will play for the Division 1 title (against Romeo) on Saturday. It’s the first time two PSL teams will play for MHSAA championships in the same season. Both games kick off at 1 p.m. at Ford Field.
The milestone is not lost on the coaches, Dale Harvel of King and Thomas Wilcher of Cass Tech.
Wilcher pointed to King and then-coach James Reynolds for taking the lead. King was the first PSL team to reach an MHSAA Final (1989 and 1990), and by doing so created instant credibility.
“King established what we could accomplish,” Wilcher said. “By winning the first state title, by winning both the PSL and then the state the same year.
“I don’t prepare my kids the same way. From day one I’m preparing for a state championship, Thanksgiving Day weekend, not for nine weeks. You have to condition a different way. You have to have a long-haul focus. The kids you started with might not be the ones you finish with. King High set that bar.”
Step aside for moment and realize what Wilcher said. Cass Tech and King is the most intense rivalry in the city. Emotions run high, and sometimes they boil over. But here is the coach from one team praising the other. In addition to the rivalry, there is mutual respect.
“It’s great,” Wilcher said of the two city powers playing for a title. “It’s great for the city.”
Regardless of what takes place Friday, Harvel said he, his staff and players will be at Ford Field in support of Cass Tech.
And Harvel said it’s not just about King and Cass Tech. What will take place this weekend will affect all PSL schools: their players, coaches, student body and alumni.
“It’s a factor with our school system,” he said. “It’s a pride factor even if you don’t play for Cass or King. The alumni for all public schools are represented.”
Harvel said even though most point to the 2007 championship season as a turning point, it was the teams that lost in the Class A Final in 1989 and 1990 that started it all. Some forget that back in 1989 there were just four MHSAA Finals champions, not eight, making King’s run all the more noteworthy. The next season the playoffs were expanded from four classifications to eight.
Coincidentally, each team has had two difficult playoff games and two one-sided affairs on their way to Ford Field. King (13-0) trailed Detroit U-D Jesuit, 24-21, in a Pre-District before winning, 35-24, and King led Detroit East English 7-0 after three quarters before pulling away for a 26-12 victory in a Regional Final.
Cass Tech (11-2) blew past its first two opponents by the combined score of 84-20. In the Regional Final it trailed Macomb Dakota 10-0 before coming back for a 16-10 victory. Last week, the Technicians held on to defeat Canton 48-41 on a snow-covered field at Troy Athens. Canton had possession on Cass Tech’s 40 for the last play of the game.
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.
PHOTO: Detroit Cass Tech (green helmets) and Detroit Martin Luther King, here in the Detroit PSL Final, give the league two MHSAA finalists for the first time. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.)
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.)