By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
One week of MHSAA football playoffs is behind us, and all nine champions from 2013 are still alive.
Maybe that's not too shocking, considering they were the elite only a short year ago. But don't be too surprised if that number is cut down by at least a few when Saturday night is done.
All nine of those reigning champions remain undefeated heading into Friday and Saturday's District Finals. But three are playing opponents also undefeated through 10 weeks.
All three matchups are among those highlighted below as we look to this week's 11-player District Finals and 8-player Regional Finals. All are Friday unless noted.
Lapeer (10-0) at Clarkston (10-0)
The Wolves have fended off a few impressive challenges in building their winning streak to 23 straight including last season's run to their first MHSAA title. Quarterback D.J. Zezula has taken on and thrived in a starring role as Clarkston has earned close wins over Macomb Dakota and Farmington Hills Harrison and double-digit victories over everyone else. But Lapeer is as daunting an unknown as they come in this tournament; the Lightning, in its first season after the combination of Lapeer East and West, also has been challenged only twice but hung tough in its playoff debut last week with a 23-15 win over Romeo.
Others that caught my eye: Hudsonville (6-4) at Rockford (8-2), Detroit Cass Tech (10-0) at Dearborn Fordson (10-0).
Muskegon Mona Shores (9-1) at Midland Dow (10-0)
On a night featuring a decent share of 10-0 vs. 10-0 District Finals, this still is among premier games. Dow must defend Midland Community Stadium against the playmaking power of Mona Shores quarterback Tyree Jackson, who has led his offense to 42 or more points five weeks running while facing the likes of Muskegon and Caledonia among others. The Chargers could be up to the task, having given up no more than 21 points in a game this fall in earning this opportunity to tie its record for wins.
Others that caught my eye: Farmington Hills Harrison (8-2) at Walled Lake Western (9-1), Southfield (7-3) at Oak Park (8-2).
Stevensville Lakeshore (8-2) at Zeeland West (10-0)
Aside from an odd opening-night score (2-0 over Battle Creek Central), Lakeshore has rather quietly won eight games for the third straight season. But the Lancers could make a major splash by knocking off the reigning MHSAA champion. If the score stays close, it could up Lakeshore's chances significantly; the Lancers are 5-1 this fall in games decided by 10 or fewer points. West has had only one opponent get closer than 27 points, and none come within 10.
Others that caught my eye: Cedar Springs (9-1) at Muskegon (9-1) on Saturday, Grand Rapids Christian (6-4) at Lowell (9-1).
Saginaw Swan Valley (10-0) at Lansing Sexton (10-0)
This could be THE game of this weekend, with the winner a favorite to at least reach Ford Field – if not win it all. These two also met in a Regional Final last fall, with Sexton winning 26-21. Vikings running back Alex Grace has at least 212 yards and two rushing touchdowns in eight straight games and is up to third on the MHSAA career rushing yards list with 7,353. He had 242 yards and two touchdowns in the 2013 loss to the Big Reds, who again are sound defensively and capable on offense of holding onto the ball as well.
Others that caught my eye: Vicksburg (8-2) at Edwardsburg (9-1), Hudsonville Unity Christian (6-4) at Grand Rapids South Christian (8-2).
Almont (10-0) at Marine City (10-0)
Despite both being successful in the postseason over the last decade, these two have eluded each other with Marine City playing in Division 4. East China Stadium should be rocking with the Mariners representing the best from the Macomb Area Conference Gold and as the reigning Division 4 champion and the Raiders the champs in the Blue Water Area Conference. Almont has set a team record for scoring while averaging 53.4 points per game, and has given up only 49 with five shutouts including 65-0 over Clawson last week.
Others that caught my eye: Clare (8-2) at Freeland (9-1), Reed City (8-2) at Remus Chippewa Hills (8-2).
Madison Heights Madison (8-2) at Flint Beecher (10-0)
The winner of this game not only moves on to the Regional – it likely will be considered a favorite by at least some to end Ithaca’s nation-best 11-player winning streak of 66 games. That’s how much both of these teams have been regarded from the start of this fall, and neither has disappointed. Beecher has set a team record for wins, and Madison’s losses were to Division 2 playoff team Walled Lake Western and Division 3 qualifier Warren Woods-Tower.
Others that caught my eye: Clinton (10-0) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (9-1), Hillsdale (8-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (10-0).
Iron River West Iron County (9-1) at Ishpeming (9-0)
The Hematites have turned back West Iron once during their 30-game winning streak, in last season’s District Final 34-0. And the shutouts haven’t ended, with Ishpeming blanking four of its last five opponents. But the Wykons have a chance to show how much they’ve learned since that loss last season – their only loss this fall was 8-6 to playoff team Bark River-Harris, and they looked ready enough in blanking Iron Mountain 40-0 a week ago. That said, Ishpeming also shut out Iron Mountain, 36-0 on opening night.
Others that caught my eye: Traverse City St. Francis (8-2) at Suttons Bay (9-1), Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (9-1) at Whittemore-Prescott (10-0).
Fowler (10-0) at Muskegon Catholic Central (10-0)
These records are identical, but a Fowler win would be considered one of the recent best of that program’s storied history. MCC’s 22-game winning streak also includes a 42-0 District Final win over the Eagles last fall. Fowler has a tough runner in Austin Cook, the leading rusher in the Lansing area with more than 1,700 yards. He and his blockers might have the biggest task of an upset effort.
Others that caught my eye: Waterford Our Lady (9-1) at Harbor Beach (10-0) on Saturday, Johannesburg-Lewiston (9-1) at Beal City (8-2).
Cedarville (9-1) at Rapid River (10-0)
One of these years will be Cedarville’s year – the Trojans are 34-6 in four seasons of 8-player football – and they seemed to send a signal that this could be the one with a 39-0 win over Bellaire last week. Rapid River has always been in the way – the reigning MHSAA runner-up Rockets have won three straight over the Trojans including 20-19 in Week 6 and are 22-1 over the last two seasons.
Others Regional Finals: Kingston (7-3) at Deckerville (8-2), Morrice (6-4) at Peck (10-0), Lawrence (10-0) at Battle Creek St. Philip (9-1).
PHOTO: Calumet traveled to Harrison last week and won 30-21 to earn this week’s District Final matchup with Menominee. (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.)