By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
We’ve reached the third week of the 2017 Football Playoffs, and we’re going to switch up our “Drive for Detroit” format just a bit to kick off this week’s preview with a closer look at the “March to Marquette."
So we’ll glance at those four games first, followed by one person’s opinion of the most intriguing Regional Finals in all eight 11-player divisions. Six games will be broadcast this weekend either on Prep Zone by FOX Sports Detroit or MHSAA.tv, and the MHSAA playoff scoreboard page remains home to results and next week’s games as they’re determined. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard, and “Drive for Detroit” is sponsored by MI Student Aid.
8-Player Division 1
Stephenson (9-2) at Central Lake (11-0), Saturday
The move to 8-player clearly has been to Central Lake’s liking after the Trojans went only 2-7 a year ago in its final season with 11 on the field. This Semifinal will be a program first and has come after playoff wins over two other first-year 8-player programs. Stephenson also is playing in its first Semifinal, and the Eagles also have been considered among the best in 8-player most of the season. The only disappointments have been a two-point loss to Rapid River and 12-pointer to reigning champion Powers North Central, two more eventual playoff qualifiers.
Bellevue (10-1) at Deckerville (10-1), Saturday
Bellevue has shined in uncharted territory, reaching 10 wins and the Semifinals for the first time as a first-year 8-player program. Junior Gino Costello (1,756 yards, 21 TDs passing) quaterbacks a balanced attack. Deckerville, the reigning MHSAA runner-up, avenged its lone loss of the season last week in a big win over Morrice. The Eagles are averaging 341 total yards per game with junior Cruz Ibarra and senior Kenton Bowerman combining for more than 1,885 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing.
8-Player Division 2
Crystal Falls Forest Park (8-2) at Pickford (11-0), Friday
Pickford fell in last year’s Semifinal to reigning and also eventual champion Powers North Central, but has stormed back giving up only 184 yards per game. Four runners have at least 580 yards on the ground, and senior quarterback Jonah Bailey has thrown for 1,020 yards and 15 touchdowns. Former 11-player Semifinal regular Forest Park will make its first 8-player appearance at this stage of the playoffs in its second year since making the format switch, with a defense that’s giving up nearly three points fewer per game than a year ago.
Kinde-North Huron (10-1) at Portland St. Patrick (10-1), Saturday
Huron, in its second Semifinal in five seasons but with its most wins ever, has ridden a rushing attack led by senior Mike Craig. He’s run for 1,694 yards – 10.9 per carry – and 25 touchdowns as the Warriors have continued a turnaround from 2-7 a year ago. Portland St. Patrick has had a winning record every season since switching to 8-player in 2012, and this will be the Shamrocks’ first Semifinal since that fall as they look to play in a championship game for the first time since 1997.
11-Player Division 1
Detroit Cass Tech (8-2) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (10-1), Friday
This looks like a measuring stick game for both teams. Most years, reigning Division 1 champion Cass Tech would be an automatic favorite to win the whole thing again – but with two losses this fall, the Technicians have found themselves traveling the last two weeks. That said, those defeats came to reigning Division 2 champ Martin Luther King by 10 points and by only three points to Pickerington Central, which is 10-1 heading into the second round of the Ohio playoffs. Beating Cass Tech immediately lends respect to that opponent, which Chippewa Valley would deserve it if it lands a first Regional title since 2003. The Big Reds’ only loss was by seven in Week 4 to Utica Eisenhower, the Semifinal opponent if both succeed this weekend.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY Detroit Catholic Central (7-4) at Canton (10-1), West Bloomfield (9-2) at Utica Eisenhower (11-0), SATURDAY Clarkston (9-2) at Holland West Ottawa (10-1).
11-Player Division 2
Oak Park (9-2) vs. Warren DeLaSalle (9-2) at Wayne State University, Friday
Oak Park is another program that could find itself more in the statewide spotlight with a successful weekend. The Knights have played in a Regional Final only once before, in 2012, and are seeking to make the Semifinals for the first time. Their only losses are to teams still alive – Eisenhower, again, in Division 1, and Division 3 semifinalist Farmington Hills Harrison. The Pilots are notable obstacles, of course. The Detroit Catholic League Central champs outscored their first two playoff opponents by a combined 96-0, and are only three years removed from winning the Division 2 title in 2014.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY Traverse City Central (8-3) at Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (11-0), Flushing (9-2) at Livonia Franklin (9-2), Ypsilanti Lincoln (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (10-1).
11-Player Division 3
DeWitt (10-1) vs. Muskegon (11-0) at Grand Haven, Saturday
On one sideline will be the Panthers, emerging from arguably the strongest District in the state in any division – DeWitt rose from a field including East Grand Rapids, Cedar Springs and Grand Rapids Christian. The Panthers haven’t lost since opening night to Christian and avenged that loss two weeks ago – and they still won’t be considered favorites against the reigning Division 3 runner-up Big Reds. Muskegon has topped 600 points for the second straight season and is down to giving up only 7.1 points per game this fall. Muskegon quarterback La’Darius Jefferson is coming off what’s become a typical 240 yards rushing with four touchdowns with another touchdown pass as well against Zeeland West.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY East Lansing (9-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (11-0), Riverview (10-1) at Dearborn Divine Child (10-1), Farmington Hills Harrison (8-3) at Linden (9-2).
11-Player Division 4
Lansing Sexton (8-3) at Edwardsburg (10-1), Saturday
As has been the case in the past, we’re seeing a powerful Sexton in the playoffs after the Big Reds spent most of the regular season facing larger opponents including postseason qualifiers in Divisions 1 and 3. The Big Reds cruised against previously one-loss Lake Odessa Lakewood two weeks ago before edging Plainwell last week by three – intriguing because Plainwell was one of three runners-up in the Wolverine Conference won by the Eddies. Edwardsburg avenged its lone defeat of this fall, to Three Rivers, last week with an 18-point win. The Eddies can call on some experience from last season’s Semifinal run, its second of the last four years.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY Williamston (7-4) at Escanaba (9-2), Belding (9-2) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-0), SATURDAY River Rouge (9-2) at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (10-1).
11-Player Division 5
Grand Rapids West Catholic (9-2) at Portland (10-1), Friday
This will be the fifth playoff meeting over seven seasons between these perennial powers, with the Raiders’ lone win in the recent series coming when they faced each other in the 2012 Division 5 championship game. The Falcons have won the last four titles, last year after escaping with a 10-7 win over Portland in the District Final, and they are three-point losses to Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Jackson Lumen Christi from perfection this fall. Portland, with three straight shutouts and four over their last five games, likely will be West Catholic’s toughest test so far in the playoffs.
Other Regional Finals: SATURDAY Menominee (8-3) at Reed City (10-1), Muskegon Oakridge (9-2) at Saginaw Swan Valley (10-1), Algonac 10-1) at Frankenmuth (11-0).
11-Player Division 6
Ithaca (11-0) at Montague (11-0), Saturday
The players are likely too young to remember there is some history between these powerhouse programs. Montague in a 2009 Semifinal was the last team to beat Ithaca before the Yellowjackets reeled off 69 straight wins from 2010 through the 2014 Semifinals. This meeting has that kind of weight to it; more than a few would call these the two best teams in Division 6 as Montague has faced one single-digit challenge to its perfect run this year and Ithaca has won all of its games by at least 24 points.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY Traverse City St. Francis (10-1) at Millington (10-1), Blissfield (7-4) at Warren Michigan Collegiate (11-0), SATURDAY Jackson Lumen Christi (9-1) at Watervliet (11-0).
11-Player Division 7
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (7-4) at Madison Heights Madison (11-0), Saturday
Maybe this seems like an odd pick as the intriguing game from this division, given St. Mary qualified for the playoffs as an additional qualifier and Madison hasn’t given up a point in the postseason while enjoying a perfect run. But it’s worth noting that the Falcons are the only team this fall to give a loss to reigning champion Pewamo-Westphalia – which remains alive on the other side of the bracket – and have beaten two league champions over the last two weeks. Madison’s work has been truly impressive, however. The Eagles are playing to make their first Semifinal since 2007 and have survived three games decided by four points or fewer this fall while, like SMCC, playing a schedule loaded with larger opponents.
Other Regional Finals: FRIDAY Saugatuck (8-3) at Cassopolis (10-1), SATURDAY Breckenridge (10-1) at Lake City (11-0), Pewamo-Westphalia (10-1) at Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (10-1).
11-Player Division 8
Lincoln Alcona (9-2) at Saginaw Nouvel (11-0), Friday
Many expecting a Nouvel/Muskegon Catholic Central championship game in three weeks got a shock when reigning champ MCC fell to Mendon in the District Final. Now Lincoln Alcona, coming off its first District title in this sport, is looking to continue the demolition on its side of the bracket. Nouvel is trying to get to the Semifinals for the first time since winning Division 7 in 2011, and the Panthers have had only a few scares this fall – but the latest came last week in a one-point win over Harbor Beach. The Tigers are five points over two losses from a perfect record, and a Regional title would make those close losses easy to forget.
Other Regional Finals: SATURDAY Frankfort (8-2) at Iron River West Iron County (10-1), Climax-Scotts (9-2) at Mendon (11-0), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (9-2) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (11-0).
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PHOTOS: Oak Park met Utica Eisenhower at the end of August; both teams will play in 11-player Regional Finals this weekend. (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.)