By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
MIDLAND — When Midland Dow football players looked at the playoff accomplishments of past Chargers teams, it felt like they were getting a lesson in ancient history.
There was the 1976 team that won the MHSAA Class A championship back when there were only two rounds in the playoffs. There was the 1997 squad that reached the Class A title game, winning three times in the postseason before losing to Farmington Hills Harrison at the Pontiac Silverdome.
And that's it.
For a program as consistently solid as Dow, it seems strange that only two teams in school history were able to win more than one playoff game.
"Sometimes it's matchups, sometimes it's getting a couple breaks to go your way," Dow coach Jason Watkins said. "When you get to this round of the playoffs, all the teams are going to be good."
So far, none of the teams in their path have been better than the Chargers.
They have made a task that has been difficult for past Dow teams look easy, winning 42-7 over crosstown rival Midland in the first round before beating Fenton, 41-14, in the District championship game.
"It's a big win for the development of the program," Watkins said after eliminating Fenton for the second time in three years. "Since 2010, this is our fourth trip to this round; we came away empty each time. It's nice to be able to finish that and get that District championship. It's a good landmark for us. Let's try to grow the program."
The 10th-ranked Chargers (10-1) will travel to second-ranked Walled Lake Western (11-0) on Saturday to play for the Regional championship.
"It's awesome," Dow junior quarterback Bruce Mann said. "We're gonna be on the board for a long time. People are going to be able to see us and remember us."
It hasn't been a lack of opportunities that has made this season's achievement so rare for Dow. Beginning with the unbeaten 1976 MHSAA championship team, Dow has 30 winning seasons in the last 40. The Chargers have made the playoffs nine times in the last 19 years.
They won their playoff opener each of the past two years and in three of the previous five years, but had their seasons end in the second round.
"It feels great," Dow senior receiver Justin Cook said. "I've been on two losing teams in the District Finals the past two years. The third time's the charm, I guess. It feels really good to finally get the (second-round) win. We're clicking at the right time. We're getting better each week."
Those currently wearing the green and gold of Dow are mindful of those who went before them, laying the foundation for such a strong program.
"It's huge for everyone that is involved, all of the past classes who didn't make it this far or got beat at this step," senior receiver Mike Robb said. "It's a big deal."
The season didn't begin like one that was shaping up to be special. The Chargers lost their opener to Mount Pleasant, 34-20. Not that there's any shame in that — the Oilers are 9-2 and still alive in Division 3.
In that game, Mann had only 26 yards of offense in the first half, as Dow fell behind 21-0 by halftime. He had 281 yards in the second half — and hasn't slowed up since.
It was Mann's first game in a Dow uniform after playing varsity as a freshman and sophomore for Bay City Western, where his dad, also Bruce Mann, formerly was the coach.
Led by Mann, the Chargers have scored at least 41 points in each of the last five games. Over that span, he is 81 for 109 (74.3 percent) passing for 1,451 yards and 24 touchdowns. For the season, he has 35 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in leading Dow to 10 consecutive victories.
"Coming into Dow, I had a bunch of friends, so it didn't take long to jell," Mann said. "It was just me calming down and realizing I'm not the only player and I have 10 other teammates behind me helping me succeed."
Mann has spread the wealth, throwing 11 touchdown passes to Robb, and nine apiece to Cook and Devontae Stine.
"Bruce has been picking up the offense each week," Cook said. "He's playing out of his mind. Every week, he's getting better. You can tell by the way he plays. He doesn't turn the ball over anymore."
Robb, the team's most dangerous receiving weapon, has become a dual threat in recent weeks.
Watkins moved him to defense for the regular-season finale against Midland. In that game, Robb returned an interception for a touchdown, in addition to catching four touchdown passes. In the playoff rematch a week later, Robb had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Robb's hot streak continued against Fenton, as he caught two touchdown passes, blocked a punt and grabbed his fourth interception in three games.
"Right time, right place," Robb said of his newfound knack for picking off passes. "I love playing football. Wherever coach wants to put me, that's where I'll play."
"He's always been a special teams and offensive player for us," Watkins said. "We only moved him up to defense two weeks ago. It's something we saw in the scheme of things and the teams we were playing against. There was an opportunity to use his athleticism and some of his natural instincts. He's been on a pretty good little run the last couple weeks."
The same could be said for the Chargers as a whole, as they attempt to further enhance their legacy.
Years from now, perhaps 2015 will be spoken of with the same sense of awe as 1976 and 1997.
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) A collection of Dow defenders makes a tackle during a win this season against Flint Powers Catholic. (Middle) Chargers quarterback Bruce Mann has thrown 35 touchdown passes this fall. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)