By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The lights are ready to shine again at high school football stadiums all over Michigan.
Below is the first of 14 “Drive for Detroit” weekly previews aimed at providing a glance at the most intriguing games in every corner of the state through November’s 11-Player Finals at Ford Field. No matter where you’re located in Michigan, we’ll provide at least a handful of local games sure to be worth a trip.
Varsity games this week and next will be played Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Check out the MHSAA Score Center for the full schedule and results as games are completed.
Be sure to check out as well the list of 15 games this weekend being broadcast on MHSAA.tv, including all three from the Vehicle City Gridiron Classic at Flint’s Atwood Stadium, four games from the Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University, two games from the Battle at the Big House at University of Michigan and two games from the GRidiron Classic at Grand Valley State University.
“Drive for Detroit” previews are powered by MI Student Aid. Please click the adjacent linked logo and read below for more information on how MI Student Aid is providing Michigan’s high school students with money to help pay for college.
Bay & Thumb
Linden (9-3) at Flushing (9-3), Thursday
All but one team in the nine-team Flint Metro League opens with a league game, and Linden’s 27-22 win over Flushing on opening night 2017 meant the eventual difference between second and third place behind champion Fenton. With all three anticipating being in the hunt again, tonight’s rematch could have similar significance. The Eagles have won the last three games in this series.
Other that caught my eye: THURSDAY Grand Blanc (7-3) at Midland Dow (7-3), Hudson (9-2) at Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (10-2) FRIDAY Muskegon Catholic Central (8-2) at Algonac (10-2), Ubly (7-3) at Unionville-Sebewaing (5-5).
River Rouge (10-3) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (9-3), Saturday at Wayne State University
This 3 p.m. Saturday kickoff is the premier game of this season’s Prep Kickoff Classic, with both coming off MHSAA Semifinal runs – Cass Tech in Division 1 and River Rouge in Division 4. Both are expected to again contend for spots playing during the final weekend of this season at Ford Field – with a number of their players going on to play Saturdays at the college level as well.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Oak Park (9-3) vs. Utica Eisenhower (11-1) at Wayne State, West Bloomfield (11-3) at Birmingham Groves (7-3) FRIDAY Detroit Mumford (7-4) at Detroit Country Day (4-5), Macomb Dakota (7-4) at Orchard Lake St. Mary's (2-6).
Pewamo-Westphalia (13-1) vs. Ithaca (13-1), Friday at Alma College
Both played at Ford Field to close the 2017 season, Pewamo-Westphalia as the Division 7 champion and Ithaca as Division 6 runner-up. Many of the standouts who led the Pirates to back-to-back MHSAA titles are gone as the next group looks to build on a 40-2 run over the last three seasons. The Yellowjackets also are debuting some important new faces – and guarding a 73-game regular-season winning streak.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Portland (10-2) at Ovid-Elsie (7-3), Beaverton (8-2) at Breckenridge (10-2), Belleville (10-1) at Brighton (4-5), Grand Rapids Christian (7-3) at DeWitt (10-2).
Northern Lower Peninsula
New Lothrop (10-1) at Maple City Glen Lake (7-3), Thursday
A pair of league champions match up with some historical significance on the line. New Lothrop has only one league loss over the last eight seasons. The Lakers haven’t lost a season opener since 2003. The Hornets’ new league schedule also is bookended with another tough test this fall – Traverse City St. Francis in Week 9.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Midland (8-2) at Traverse City West (9-2), Oscoda (6-4) at Houghton Lake (7-4) FRIDAY Newberry (6-3) at Frankfort (8-3), Johannesburg-Lewiston (6-4) at Manton (4-5).
Southeast & Border
Grand Rapids West Catholic (12-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (12-1), Friday
As West Catholic has won the last five Division 5 championships, and Lumen Christi has won the last two in Division 6, this will be the second straight season they’ll open meeting as reigning title winners. Last season’s chapter went Lumen Christi’s way, 27-24, and the Titans have won two of three in their recent series.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (10-2) at Saline (7-2), FRIDAY Clarkston (12-2) vs. Grandville (6-4) at University of Michigan, Homer (6-4) at Michigan Center (9-2), Morenci (6-4) at Pittsford (9-2).
Battle Creek Harper Creek (12-1) at Benton Harbor (5-5), Friday
Harper Creek’s only defeat of 2017 came in a Division 3 Semifinal against Muskegon, the division’s eventual champion. The Beavers start over again with an intriguing matchup. Benton Harbor has a new coach and is hoping to keep the same momentum that led to the Tigers’ first three playoff appearances ever over the last three seasons.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Three Rivers (8-3) at Plainwell (8-3), Berrien Springs (6-4) at Kalamazoo United (8-3), Williamston (7-5) at Battle Creek Pennfield (4-5) FRIDAY Freeland (6-4) at Marshall (4-5).
Norway (9-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (4-5), Saturday
The expanded Western Peninsula Athletic Conference gets going right away, with these former Mid-Eastern Conference rivals the most notable opener. Lake Linden-Hubbell suffered its first regular-season loss in three years last season but still made the playoffs at 4-4. Norway is coming off its second straight nine-win season and shared the final M-EC title.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Traverse City St. Francis (11-2) at Marquette (4-5), Hancock (7-3) at L'Anse (4-5), Munising (4-5) at Iron River West Iron County (11-2) SATURDAY Menominee (8-4) at Marinette, Wis. (3-6).
Warren DeLaSalle (12-2) at Muskegon (14-0), Friday
From an area always loaded with top opening-weekend matchups, it’s hard to argue with the reigning Division 3 champion hosting the reigning Division 2 winner. Both are replacing graduated star quarterbacks, but also return talented casts – the Pilots should be strong defensively, while Muskegon remains huge up front and likely to pile up rush yards again this fall.
Others that caught my eye: THURSDAY Stevensville Lakeshore (9-2) at Holland West Ottawa (10-2) FRIDAY Newaygo (7-3) at Kent City (10-1), Montague (11-1) at Reed City (11-2) SATURDAY Zeeland East (9-1) vs. East Grand Rapids (9-1) at Grand Valley State
Stephenson (9-3) at Cedarville (8-3), Friday
Did you know: Cedarville has 13 straight winning seasons and 14 straight playoff appearances (finishing 5-5 in 2004). The Trojans will begin their march to extend those streaks against a Stephenson team coming off its winningest season since 2003 and having ended Cedarville’s 2017 in a Division 1 Regional Final.
Others that caught my eye: FRIDAY Deckerville (11-2) at Flint International Academy (8-3), *Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-4) at Hillman (6-5), Pickford (11-1) at Mesick (5-5), Marion (7-3) at Onekama (9-2) (*both played 11-player last season).
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: Grand Ledge’s sideline takes in a Friday night view during last season's game against rival DeWitt. (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.)