By Dean Holzwarth
Special to Second Half
GREENVILLE – Deckerville sophomore Ryan Stone had serious doubts about playing on the varsity team this year.
Stone thought he was better suited for the junior varsity. But following Friday night's MHSAA 8-player football championship game, everyone in the city of Deckerville is glad he opted for the jump to the next level.
The scrawny 5-foot-8, 140-pound Stone made perhaps the biggest play of the game as the Eagles survived a late rally from Bellaire to pull out a 14-12 victory at Greenville High School's Legacy Field.
Stone stopped Bellaire's two-point conversion run try short of the goal line with 49 seconds remaining to prevent a tie score and possible overtime.
“I was lined up and saw him coming around the corner,” Stone said. “I was hustling to him, hoping I could get him before he crossed the line. I just got to him.”
And doing so gave Deckerville its first MHSAA championship in its first Final appearance, to cap its first season in 8-player football. Bellaire made the switch to 8-player three seasons ago, and also made its first MHSAA Final appearance. The first 8-Player Final was last season.
On Friday’s game-saving play, Stone popped out his right shoulder and laid on the turf for several minutes while athletic trainers tended to him.
He eventually stood up and walked gingerly to the sidelines.
“I thought that was amazing,” said Deckerville senior fullback Chris Wolfe, who rushed for 108 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown.
“To put his body at risk to stop a two-point conversion for us not to go into overtime – I thought that was amazing to help our team like that.”
Deckerville coach Bill Brown wasn't surprised to see Stone put himself in harm's way for the benefit of his team.
“He has made big plays for us all year, and it takes a lot of heart and guts to make that happen,” he said. “This whole team is just like him, and what a heck of a play. He's one of those kids who thought he might not want to come up as a sophomore, but he came up, and what a great addition to our team.”
Stone also came up with a key interception in the third quarter, and scampered 23 yards for a touchdown on the Eagles' ensuing possession that put them ahead 14-6.
“It's my sophomore year, and to already win a state championship is pretty amazing,” Stone said. “I wanted to stay on the junior varsity this year because I didn't think I could make it on the varsity very well, but I think I did pretty good.”
Stone's effort was almost for naught, as Bellaire recovered an onside kick and threatened in the final seconds.
A 31-yard pass from quarterback Zach Smith to Wes Villafane put Bellaire at the Deckerville 4-yard line.
But Deckerville's defense smothered the run on the game's final play to preserve the win.
“We didn't spike it down there because I live by the philosophy of, let's catch them so the defense can't get set,” Bellaire coach Ron Bindi said. “We hit a big play earlier with that running play, and it just didn't work out.
“The kids have played like this all year. With only 13 of them, they are always outnumbered, but there is no quit in them. We just didn't get it done at the end this time.”
Trailing 14-6 late, Smith tossed a long bomb to Villafane, who hauled in the 52-yard score and trimmed the deficit to14-12.
Bellaire (9-4) failed multiple times to capitalize on scoring opportunities.
The Eagles were inside Deckerville's 30-yard line five times, but only scored once on a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Smith in the final minute of the second quarter.
“We came out ready to play, but our offense did things that we haven't done all year,” Bindi said. “We made mistake, after mistake, after mistake, and you can't win football games like that.”
Deckerville closed with a 12-1 record en route to the title. Its lone loss came in Week 2 against Cedarville.
“Ever since Week 1, it has been a great ride,” Wolfe said. “We learned a lot of things. We learned responsibility, dedication and how to become a team.”
Said Brown: “It means a lot to the program, our community and all the alumni who have played before us and busted their tails. We just happened to have a great year with a great group.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Deckerville running back Christopher Wolfe prepares for an oncoming tackler during Friday's 8-Player Final. (Middle) Bellaire's Zach Smith (12) dives for his team's first touchdown. (Click to see more from the Regional Final at 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.)