By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – As the final seconds ticked down in Friday’s Division 6 Final, Ithaca’s players predictably began throwing four fingers into the air – signifying their fourth straight MHSAA title.
But the Yellowjackets could’ve chosen instead to press a thumb and fingertip together and form a zero – as in how many times they’ve lost during this greatest run in state football history.
Ithaca re-claimed a tie with Iowa City Regina (Iowa) for the nation’s longest active winning streak of 56 straight by climbing back from an early deficit to beat Clinton 41-22 at Ford Field.
The Yellowjackets’ run of perfection also is the longest in MHSAA history to occur entirely during the playoff era. Only Hudson, with 72 straight wins between 1968-75, put together a longer streak – and the Tigers’ included only one playoff win before they fell in the first-ever MHSAA Class C Final.
Also, only two teams have won more consecutive titles than Ithaca; East Grand Rapids and Farmington Hills Harrison achieved five straight apiece.
“We have a huge target on our back, and we all know that. As a team, we handle it pretty well,” said Ithaca senior quarterback Travis Smith, who finished his career 41-0 as a starter and as the only player who dressed for all four Finals wins.
“We left the whole winning streak for our community to play with. We don’t really think about it too much. We just focus on the task at hand, which is what our coaching staff says all the time. And I’m just so proud of my team and my friends.”
Despite the convincing final score, Ithaca did trail Clinton into the third quarter. Amazingly, the Yellowjackets trailed in all of the final four playoff games this fall.
Coach Terry Hessbrook, in his 10th season running the program and a former Ithaca standout himself, called three of the running backs his team faced during the run – Maple City Glen Lake’s Trevor Apsey, Negaunee’s Tyler LaJoie and Clinton junior Collin Poore – among the best Ithaca has ever faced. Then there was the more sizable Montrose, which provided the season’s greatest scare before falling to the Yellowjackets by a point in the Semifinal.
“We’ve been behind four playoff weeks in a row. It just does not seem to faze them,” Hessbrook said of his players. “With the big heavy weight, burden, on their shoulders and the bulls eye and the winning streak and all that kind of stuff, I’ve got to believe that a lot of high school kids would crumble under that kind of pressure.
“These guys are going to go on to do amazing things in life because they’re special people.”
But it was Clinton (13-1) that appeared early to be special enough to end Ithaca’s streak. The Redskins capped their best season ever by making their first MHSAA Final.
“I came last year to watch Ithaca play. Just coming to play the game is totally different,” Clinton senior quarterback T.J. Baker said. “I knew I was nervous right when I stepped on the first. It was just crazy to play in this game. But at the same time, it was fun. Our community has never been here before, and it was just a fun game to play in.”
After Ithaca jumped to a 14-0 lead, Clinton bounced back with a Poore 18-yard touchdown run and an 86-yard punt return score by sophomore Mathew Sexton.
That seemed to nudge Ithaca’s offense – which finished this season with 710 points, third most in MHSAA history. Smith threw the second of his four touchdown passes to give Ithaca back the lead heading into halftime, and followed another Poore score at the start of the third quarter with two more scoring passes and a scoring run.
Smith also returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown during the first quarter, giving him a hand in all six Ithaca scores. He finished his high school career with an MHSAA record 104 touchdown passes, and in this game 123 yards rushing and 247 passing.
“He lived up to his billing,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “We did the best we could against him. And for two and a half quarters, we felt we were right there. And then it just got away from us a bit, and the momentum changed.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of young men who overcame a lot of adversity. To make it to the state finals, it’s unheard of where we come from.”
Hessbrook said everything he feared about Clinton seemed to go wrong for his team during the first half. Poore finished with 125 yards rushing and the team as a whole had 254, taking advantage of its perimeter speed to get around the corner on pitch sweeps and other similar runs for 208 of those yards during the first half.
But the Yellowjackets made the necessary adjustments during the third quarter, taking away that edge while bringing more pressure – Ithaca finished with 13 tackles for losses including seven sacks.
Senior Josh Hafner caught two of the scoring passes from Smith, and senior Eli Villalobos had six catches for 82 yards and a score. Senior Logan Hessbrook also had six catches, for 93 yards and a score, to follow last season’s performance when he stepped in for an injured Smith at quarterback and led the team to the title.
“You’re playing with your best friends you’ve grown up with your whole life. It’s the best group of friends I’ve ever had and could ask for,” said Hessbrook, who also is the coach’s nephew. “And the coaching staff and the community, it’s amazing.
“Ithaca’s a special place. Coach says that; everyone says that. And when I get out of college, I’m going to try to come right back to Ithaca, because it’s amazing to live there.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca senior Josh Hafner (14) leaps over two Clinton defenders on the way to one of his two touchdowns. (Middle) Ithaca quarterback Travis Smith holds tight to the ball after a big hit from Clinton’s Mathew Sexton. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)