MUSKEGON – A Reeths-Puffer running back tripped and plowed into the Kit Kat-shaped bags he was supposed to be hurdling Monday, and his teammates laughed. The offensive line coach wore a shirt, like line coaches always do, that read “No One Works Harder Than The Offensive Line.” The sun came out about halfway through, but the breeze kept the weather just right, and after a hands-in, all-together “R-P!” someone shouted, “I’ve missed that!”
The setting was as typical as could be for the first day of football practice at any high school across Michigan over the last many years … except for 2020.
Remember a year ago? When COVID-19 precautions meant little to no contact for the most contact-filled sport? When locker rooms were closed and footballs were wiped down after every snap? And the possibility of the season ending at any moment hung in the air?
“I was telling the team (last year) we could play our first game and the rest of the season could get canceled, so you don’t know,” Rockets senior lineman Marco Fields recalled. “The seniors only got to play half their season, and some got hurt.
“Now that we know we have a full senior season ahead of us, for us seniors, all we can do now is stay focused.”
Indeed, although there’s little debate that COVID-19 is still lingering, just about everything Monday at Reeths-Puffer felt differently from the first day of football practice a year ago. And although varsity head coach Matt Bird thought he might have an answer to what remained the same from 2020 … he really didn’t.
“The same is … (searching for his thought)
“… that you are … (pause)
“Kids … (trailed off)
“Actually, I don’t feel that anything is the same,” he admitted. “Other than we have a football, and we have some things involved from that standpoint.”
Monday marked a fresh start for high school football across Michigan, after last season included multiple COVID-related delays before finishing up in late January – which followed also an abbreviated regular season during which the conversation was forced at times into much more serious topics than the highlights on the field.
But every first day of practice means starting anew. And when it comes to fresh starts, Reeths-Puffer is a great place to begin Fall 2021.
Start with Bird, something of a master when it comes to building from a clean slate.
Way back in 2000, he was an offensive assistant when Grand Ledge won the Division 1 championship, the only Division 1 title that’s been won by a Lansing-area team. Six years later, he took over the Comets program and debuted with back-to-back 3-6 seasons (which predictably didn’t go over too well) before rattling off 10 winning seasons over the next 12 including a Semifinals trip in 2015. That eventually led to a rarely-seen career move after the 2018 season – leaving an established power for a new challenge, as Bird took the Reeths-Puffer job and took on a program that was coming off a second-straight 5-4 finish but accomplished with just under 30 players on the roster.
Bird led his first Rockets team to another 5-4 finish in 2019 … and then 2020 hit. Reeths-Puffer finished 2-5, but all things considered there were plenty of positives to take away.
When practice started, Bird was just finishing up recovery from COVID-19. And despite the unpredictability the season promised, the varsity still managed to grow to 53 players.
“As a coach you have to acknowledge it,” Bird said Monday, recalling 2020. “But the thing that is frustrating to me is you want to acknowledge it, but when you look at it everything was done so differently; it didn’t even feel like a season. At times you’d get started, then kicked back, then started and kicked back. We couldn’t do team dinners, we couldn’t do a lot of the bonding things we do as a group, and that hurt us.”
Monday was the beginning of another fresh start for the Rockets. Set aside that the great majority of COVID restrictions are off – the program is still emphasizing a number of hygiene and health-related concepts to help players avoid illness – and the football-related details provide plenty of excitement.
On one hand, Reeths-Puffer still plays in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green – which includes the winningest program in MHSAA history in Muskegon High, back-to-back Division 2 champion Mona Shores and powerful neighbors Zeeland West and East. Grand Rapids Union, Holland and Wyoming all provide some intriguing possibilities as well heading into the new season.
But Bird’s varsity roster looks to push past 50 again, with 20 seniors including four returning senior starters on both sides of the ball. Fields is a Division I-caliber college line prospect, and the sophomore class is shaping up to be special with 6-foot-7 Travis Ambrose of particular note.
“I know every coach says their sport is the best team sport, but there’s something about football where you’ve got 11 guys out there and everybody can contribute,” Bird said. “The 6-5 kid to the 5-7 kid, and you can find a way to make that come together. I’ve always been a big fan, where it’s ‘Tell me that we can’t do something, and let me prove that (we can).’ … We compete using our strengths rather than focusing on some of the things that we don’t have.”
And there are lessons learned last season which, despite its wildness, should pay off. For example, last year teams were forced to focus more on technique with contact cut down substantially, and then rely on technology to cut down on face-to-face conversation. On Monday, Bird was recording his quarterbacks’ footwork with a tablet so he could share the video later over Google Meet, the new norm in communication but something Bird considers a valuable teaching tool brought on by the last 18 months.
The players, for their part, could allow themselves to feel a little lighter than a year ago. Fields and his teammates got to have more fun this time. And they were able talk about the expectations and aspirations that always make the first day a special one.
“I’ve heard people are expecting a normal Reeths-Puffer, and some say ‘Rocket failure again,’ which is just us going 2-5 or whatever they’re trying to say,” Fields said. “But I think we’re going to take this thing all the way.”
“This is normalcy, to an extent,” was Bird’s take on the day. “And it’s just really nice.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Reeths-Puffer running backs hurdle a series of bags during a busy first practice Monday. (Middle) Clockwise from top: Assistant coaches Jari Brown (left) and Jeff Uganski work with the linemen; senior Marco Fields (front, blue sleeveless shirt) is among those working on his form; varsity coach Matt Bird works with one of his quarterbacks and their receivers. (Below) Bird gathers with his team at the end of their first practice of the season. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)
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.)