By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The 42nd MHSAA Football Playoffs begin tonight with most of this season’s 272 qualifiers taking the field across both peninsulas and nine divisions.
This week’s Drive for Detroit preview – powered by MI Student Aid – touches on five games of intrigue in every division, including a number of rematches of meetings from earlier this season – or in the case of our top Division 1 contest, a rematch of a league title-deciding game played only a week ago.
Rockford (6-3) at Hudsonville (8-1)
There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been over the last week. These teams met seven days ago, with Hudsonville claiming a 14-7 win to create a three-way championship in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red between the Eagles, former lone leader Rockford and Grandville. These two also met in the playoffs the last three seasons; Rockford avenged a one-point Week 9 loss a year ago by beating Hudsonville 21-13 for a District title.
Others that caught my eye: Lapeer (7-2) at Clarkston (7-2), Canton (7-2) at Northville (7-2), Macomb Dakota (6-3) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (6-3), Dearborn Fordson (8-1) at Detroit Cass Tech (9-0) on Saturday.
Traverse City West (6-3) vs. Traverse City Central (8-1) at Thirlby Field
These neighbors will meet at their shared stadium for the first time in the playoffs, and in front of a crowd that could approach 10,000. Central’s 10-8 win over West in Week 3 ended up giving the Trojans’ a one-win edge over the Titans for the Big North Conference championship. West has lost three in a row to Central, and went on this season to fall close to Benton Harbor and then to Coldwater last week. Central’s only defeat was two weeks ago in triple overtime at Birmingham Brother Rice – and this could be close again too with these teams knowing each other so well.
Others that caught my eye: Portage Northern (5-4) at Portage Central (8-1), Flint Carman-Ainsworth (6-3) at Fenton (7-2), Oak Park (6-3) vs. Detroit U-D Jesuit (6-2) at Hazel Park, Birmingham Brother Rice (6-3) at Warren Cousino (8-1).
Battle Creek Harper Creek (7-2) 73.222 at Coldwater (7-2)
Coldwater handed Harper Creek its only loss this season in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference – 19-7 in Week 7 – but then watched the Beavers share the league title as the Cardinals finished third. But with a schedule that included five games against teams with winning records and three wins over playoff qualifiers, Coldwater earned the right to host this week as it looks to build on last season’s Division 3 Semifinal run. Harper Creek, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs after going 3-6 a year ago and has secured its best record since 2013.
Others that caught my eye: Zeeland West (7-2) at Grand Rapids Christian (8-1), Zeeland East (6-3) at Byron Center (8-1), St. Joseph (6-3) at Stevensville Lakeshore (6-3), East Lansing (6-3) at DeWitt (8-1).
Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (7-2) at Detroit Country Day (9-0), Saturday
Successful in many sports, Cranbrook Kingswood hasn’t had the same kind of long-standing championship tradition in football – but has put together a 22-8 record over the last three seasons under coach Joe D’Angelo, who earned most of his 222 career wins at Detroit Country Day from 1977-97. These two met in the District Final a year ago and Country Day won 42-7. The Yellowjackets dominated most of this fall too but have had to work through close wins the last two weeks against Detroit U-D Jesuit and Temperance Bedford.
Others that caught my eye: Allendale (7-2) at Wyoming Kelloggsville (8-1), Grand Rapids South Christian (5-4) at Benton Harbor (9-0), Flint Powers Catholic (5-4) at Lake Fenton (8-1), St. Clair Shores South Lake (7-2) at Marysville (9-0).
Grand Rapids West Catholic (7-2) at Lansing Catholic (8-1)
A rematch of a Division 5 Semifinal from last season kicks off opening night, with more familiar faces on the Falcons’ side but offensive weapons of similar skills leading both. Quarterback Gaetano Vallone and running back/previous quarterback David Fox are the recognizable names from last year’s playoff run, while Lansing Catholic quarterback Michael Lynn has stepped in this season to provide similar run/pass dual threat ability. West Catholic is coming off a tough three-point loss to Allendale last week that cost the Falcons an outright O-K Blue title, and they face the prospect of three road games to get back to the Semifinals. Lansing Catholic’s only loss was by a point in Week 4 to rival Portland, which plays on the other side of this District bracket.
Others that caught my eye: Clare (8-1) at Remus Chippewa Hills (8-1), Saginaw Swan Valley (6-3) at Freeland (9-0), Buchanan (5-3) 56.069 at Dowagiac (6-3), Algonac (8-1) 81.667 at Detroit Denby (8-1).
Watervliet (7-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (7-2)
Watervliet has scored at a school record-setting pace the last two seasons, averaging 52 points per game in 2015 and 55 this fall – with 30 and 58 in its losses. The Panthers will get the chance to see how that prowess transfers against an opponent that’s seen and contained its share of strong offenses. The Titans have given up just fewer than 17 points per game against a schedule that’s included four playoff teams and a couple more that contended for bids.
Others that caught my eye: Montague (7-2) at Kent City (7-2), Montrose (6-3) at Laingsburg (8-1), Constantine (6-3) at Schoolcraft (9-0), Boyne City (6-3) at Calumet (8-1) on Saturday.
Madison Heights Madison (6-3) vs. Detroit Loyola (7-2), Saturday at Hazel Park
Neither of these teams would be a surprise finalist at Ford Field next month; Loyola is a regular on championship weekend and claimed a Detroit Catholic League AA title this fall, while Madison shared the Macomb Area Conference Silver title with teams playing in the Division 3 and Division 4 brackets. The Bulldogs have reached the Semifinals each of the last four seasons, while Madison is seeking its first run that deep since 2007 – but has played in Division 5 and 6 over the last decade.
Others that caught my eye: Gwinn (6-3) at Iron Mountain (7-2), Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (7-2) at Ubly (9-0), Springport (7-2) at Concord (7-2), Clinton (6-3) at Sand Creek (8-1).
Saginaw Nouvel (6-3) at Breckenridge (9-0)
Breckenridge already has achieved the most incredible turnaround in MHSAA playoff-era history, becoming the first team to from 0-9 (in 2015) to 9-0. The Huskies have accomplished this following a sophomore quarterback who should keep the program rolling forward. Nouvel, meanwhile, has played itself into a sixth playoff berth over the last seven seasons, with a big win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in Week 9 getting the Panthers back in the hunt. The Irish are the only common opponent between the two; Nouvel won 35-7, while Breckenridge won 40-32 but way back in Week 3 as it was just starting to catch stride.
Others that caught my eye: Mendon (7-2) vs. St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic (8-1) at Bridgman, Pittsford (6-3) at Morenci (6-3), Iron River West Iron County (6-3) at Norway (7-2), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (7-2) at Waterford Our Lady (6-3) on Saturday.
Lawrence (8-1) at Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (9-0) at Wyoming Lee
Tri-unity Christian is welcomed to its first playoffs tonight by having to face 2014 champion Lawrence – but should feel pretty good about that match-up after downing the Tigers 53-14 in Week 7. That was Lawrence’s only loss, and it’s beaten two other playoff teams over the last four weeks. But the Tigers must score; their 14 points against the Defenders were the most given up this season by Tri-unity, which is allowing only 4.7 points per game.
Others that caught my eye: Cedarville (6-3) at Engadine (9-0). Owendale-Gagetown (8-1) at New Haven Merritt (9-0).
Second Half’s weekly “Drive for Detroit” previews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Student Financial Services Bureau located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information, including various student financial assistance programs to help make college more affordable for Michigan students. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 savings programs (MET/MESP) and eight additional aid programs within its Student Scholarships and Grants division. Click for more information and connect with MI Student Aid on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.
PHOTO: St. Joseph will kick off its ninth playoff appearance over the last 11 seasons tonight against Stevensville Lakeshore, which beat the Bears 31-12 in Week 4. (Click to see 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.)