By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Your wait is over. After nine months of anticipation, high school football will return to Michigan tonight.
Over the last four seasons, the Second Half weekly preview of the state’s top games was titled “A Game for Every Fan.” Despite a name change this fall, the goal is the same – we’ll highlight a top game in all eight of our Second Half coverage zones, plus the best in 8-player, and suggest a few more as we truly believe there’s a game close by worth watching no matter where our football fans reside.
Drive for Detroit, powered by MI Student Aid, will publish the first varsity game day (generally Fridays) each week. Games are organized regionally by host team (or the Michigan team if it’s playing out of state); this week is a little tricky with a number of games hosted by University of Michigan and Wayne State University, so the top games from those showcases are listed below in the regions where those stadiums are located. All games are Thursday unless noted.
Visit the MHSAA.com Score Center tonight and all weekend for scores as they are reported and links to updated schedules and standings.
Bay & Thumb
Algonac (10-2) at Marine City (6-4)
Based on last season’s records alone, maybe this wouldn’t be considered the most intriguing game coming from this region. But the back stories bring these teams up front. Algonac was the story from the Thumb last season, enjoying its best finish ever after going 1-8 in 2014. The Muskrats opened by breaking a 15-game losing streak to Marine City, by the closest of margins winning 19-18, and a number of key contributors are back this fall. The Mariners did go on to extend their playoff streak to 18 straight seasons and shared the Macomb Area Conference Gold championship, but tallied their fewest wins since that last non-playoff season of 1997.
Others that caught my eye: Mount Pleasant (9-3) at Midland Dow (10-2), DeWitt (9-2) at Linden (8-3), New Lothrop (12-1) at Saginaw Nouvel (9-2), Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (10-2) at Almont (8-3).
Chelsea (12-2) vs. River Rouge (12-2), Saturday at Wayne State
Both of these teams finished last season at Ford Field, as both made appearance at the MHSAA Finals for the first time. Chelsea fell in Division 3 to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s but returns veteran quarterback Jack Bush to lead a number of new contributors. River Rouge just missed taking down Grand Rapids West Catholic in last season’s Division 5 championship game and graduated Finals star Antoine Burgess among others who played big roles, but is a combined 40-7 over the last four seasons.
Others that caught my eye: Orchard Lake St. Mary's (12-1) at Macomb Dakota (9-3), Birmingham Groves (10-1) at West Bloomfield (9-1), Livonia Franklin (9-4) at Livonia Stevenson (6-4), Detroit Martin Luther King (14-0) vs. Southfield Arts & Technology (former schools Southfield and Lathrup combined to go 13-8 last season) on Saturday at Wayne State.
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (13-1), Friday
This is arguably the best matchup of small schools anywhere in the state during opening weekend, with Pewamo-Westphalia coming off a runner-up finish in Division 7 and St. Mary coming off its 12th playoff berth in 13 seasons and only two removed from winning the Division 6 title. Most eyes will be on Pirates senior running back Jared Smith, who set the MHSAA single-season rushing record with 3,250 yards last fall and single-season rushing touchdown record with 53.
Others that caught my eye: Lansing Everett (4-5) at Howell (5-5), Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-4) at Beal City (9-2) on Friday, Ithaca (14-0) at Clare (5-4) on Friday, St. Johns (8-4) at East Lansing (5-4) on Friday.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Gaylord (6-4) at Boyne City (10-2)
Rebuilt Gaylord found itself in the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007 and with its most wins since 2005 after successive seasons of 0-9, 1-8 and 5-4, respectively. The Blue Devils have replaced key players like most, but so too is Boyne City with running back Malik Smith now at Michigan State after helping the Ramblers to 22 wins against only three losses over the last two seasons. Boyne City does return quarterback Mason Gardner, however, and his presence could be good for a quicker start than many this weekend.
Others that caught my eye: Ada Forest Hills Eastern (11-2) at Petoskey (8-3), Cadillac (2-7) at Big Rapids (7-4), McBain (8-4) at Manistee (7-3), Kingsley (5-4) at Maple City Glen Lake (5-5) on Friday.
Southeast & Border
Grand Rapids West Catholic (12-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (8-4), Friday
West Catholic will play its first game in a decade without coach Dan Rohn, who stepped down after last season’s fourth MHSAA championship in six seasons. Still, offensive stars Gaetano Vallone and David Fox should give the Falcons a good head start. Lumen Christi was among an impressive group of teams taken down last season during Clinton’s run to the Division 6 Final; the Titans were eliminated in the Regional Final. But they’re looking to add to an 18-season playoff streak – and add a second straight win in this series after downing West Catholic 22-21 on opening night a year ago.
Others that caught my eye: Manchester (9-2) at Clinton (13-1) on Friday, Coldwater (12-1) at Jackson (8-3) on Friday, Clarkston (7-3) at Lapeer (10-1) on Friday at University of Michigan, Muskegon (9-3) at Ann Arbor Pioneer (7-4) on Saturday at University of Michigan.
Marshall (7-3) at Benton Harbor (6-5), Friday
Last season was one of dreams coming true for Benton Harbor, which gained national acclaim and made the playoffs for the first time (and won a playoff game too) after two straight 0-9 seasons and eight straight total with one or zero wins. This is a new season, but there should be plenty of enthusiasm as it kicks off immediately against a tough opponent. Marshall rebounded off two straight sub-.500 seasons last fall to finish a two-point loss shy of an undefeated run in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference.
Others that caught my eye: Saugatuck (10-1) at Constantine (7-5), Vicksburg (8-3) at Dowagiac (6-4), Portage Central (8-2) at Mattawan (5-4) on Friday, Battle Creek Central (4-5) at Stevensville Lakeshore (6-4) on Friday.
East Grand Rapids (9-4) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (9-2), Friday
Grand Rapids Catholic Central will host the first varsity football game at Cougar Stadium against the first of a slate of tough opponents again this season. East Grand Rapids has beaten the Cougars in three straight openers, last season 28-14, and is coming off its best season since also winning nine games in 2011 – the Pioneers were eight points from getting past eventual Division 3 champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in last season’s Semifinal. After last season’s loss, GRCC didn’t fall again until its Division 4 District Final.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Ledge (12-1) at Hudsonville (7-4), Muskegon Oakridge (7-3) at Muskegon Catholic Central (11-2), Warren DeLaSalle (6-4) at Lowell (12-2) on Friday, Saline (10-1) at Rockford (7-4) on Friday.
Ishpeming (13-0) at Iron Mountain (7-4), Friday
Ishpeming is coming off its third MHSAA championship in four seasons after downing P-W in last fall’s Division 7 Final and defeated rival Iron Mountain twice in 2015 – 14-7 on opening night and then 24-14 in their District Final. The Hematites will try to extend a regular-season winning streak that goes back to Week 8 of 2012, as Iron Mountain seeks to beat them for the first time since 2011.
Others that caught my eye: Munising (7-3) at Iron River West Iron County (3-6), Houghton (4-5) at L'Anse (5-4) on Friday, Traverse City St. Francis (12-1) at Marquette (3-5) on Friday, Menominee (11-1) at Marinette, Wis. (2-7) on Saturday.
Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-4 as 11-player) at Rapid River (7-4), Friday
One of the Upper Peninsula’s best rivalries in a number of sports will enjoy a new chapter with Forest Park’s move to 8-player football this fall. As an 11-player team, the Trojans enjoyed a string of 19 straight playoff appearances through last fall. The Forest Park and Rapid River football programs haven’t faced off since 1983, and the Rockets have built one of the top 8-player programs in Michigan since making the switch in 2011.
Others that caught my eye: Lawrence (8-3) at Mayville (5-4 as 11-player), Battle Creek St. Philip (12-1) at Kingston (5-4) on Friday.
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: Ithaca players enter the field during a game last season. (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.)