By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Friday begins another five-week journey to whittle 272 MHSAA football playoff qualifiers to nine champions.
But many more than nine teams have something to celebrate over the next month:
- Burton Atherton, Lapeer, Ypsilanti, Big Rapids Crossroads Academy and New Haven Merritt Academy are appearing in the playoffs for the first time. Lapeer is in its first year as a school.
- Brethren (1990), Manton (1994), Fraser (1998), Harrison (1999), Romulus (2000), Bad Axe (2001), Riverview Gabriel Richard (2003), Leroy Pine River (2005), Newberry (2005) and Quincy (2005) all are in the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.
- Rockford, with 20 straight appearances, has taken over the longest active playoff streak with Felch North Dickinson not qualifying this fall for the first time since 1990. Menominee has qualified 19 straight seasons, and Crystal Falls Forest Park is next with 18 straight.
- Beal City has made the playoffs 15 straight seasons and an MHSAA-best 32 times overall, following by Farmington Hills Harrison with 31 appearances and Forest Park with 30.
- All nine champions from 2013 are back, although Marine City is in Division 5 after winning Division 4 a year ago. All but one of last season’s 18 finalists made the field again. Ithaca is going for its fifth straight title, and Birmingham Brother Rice is seeking its fourth straight.
And it all begins this weekend. Read on for some of the best matchups from each division. All are Friday unless noted.
Fraser (6-3) at Dearborn Fordson (9-0)
Fraser was among big celebration stories Sunday after earning its first playoff berth since 1998 – in fact, the Ramblers have achieved their first winning season since 2001 and were 3-6 only a year ago. Fraser also opened this fall 1-3 before winning five straight to qualify – so there’s a lot here to praise. But Fordson has high expectations as well. The Tractors have made the playoffs nine straight seasons but not past the District opener since 2011. Three of their last five wins this fall are over playoff teams – and Fordson gave up single-digit points in seven victories.
Others that caught my eye: Waterford Mott (6-3) at Walled Lake Central (7-2), Plymouth (7-2) at Livonia Churchill (7-2), Hudsonville (5-4) at Holland West Ottawa (5-4).
Caledonia (7-2) at Muskegon Mona Shores (8-1), Saturday
For statewide fans, this is the most intriguing game of opening weekend. Their first meeting wasn’t much to discuss – Mona Shores won big, 40-7. But since, Caledonia has outscored its five opponents by a combined 187-27. Four of those opponents are in the playoffs, and total the Fighting Scots have beaten six playoff teams from arguably the strongest area of the state. That said, Mona Shores might be the best from the west right now, given arguably its most memorable win ever last week, 48-27 over Muskegon. Quarterback Tyree Jackson will finish his career among the leading passers in MHSAA history, and his offense is averaging 41 points per game.
Others that caught my eye: Portage Northern (6-3) at Portage Central (7-1), Farmington Hills Harrison (7-2) at Fenton (9-0), Southfield (6-3) at Detroit Martin Luther King (8-1).
East Grand Rapids (6-3) at Lowell (8-1)
The Red Arrows own four straight wins over their Ottawa-Kent Conference White rival. But it’s important to put the last couple of matchups in perspective; Lowell helped keep East Grand Rapids out of the playoffs in 2011 with a 42-39 win and then won 30-25 in Week 3 this fall. The Pioneers would surely enjoy returning to the playoffs after two years off by ending Lowell’s season in a District opener.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern (7-2) at Cedar Springs (8-1), Mount Pleasant (6-3) at Marquette (7-2) on Saturday, Grand Rapids Christian (5-4) at St. Johns (8-1).
Goodrich (7-2) at Saginaw Swan Valley (9-0)
It will be tough for Swan Valley to not look ahead to a possible District Final matchup with Lansing Sexton, the only team to beat the Vikings the last two seasons (in last year’s Regional Final). But they know to be careful with Goodrich, their District Final opponent in 2012 and the second-place team this fall in the solid Genesee Area Conference Red. Swan Valley has enjoyed senior running back Alex Grace to the tune of 7,055 rushing yards while building a 30-4 record over the last three seasons – he’s currently fifth all-time for career rushing yards in MHSAA history and could move up to third on the list with a big game Friday.
Others that caught my eye: Paw Paw (6-3) at Edwardsburg (8-1), Williamston (7-2) at Lansing Sexton (9-0), Detroit Country Day (5-4) at Detroit Denby (5-4) on Saturday.
Muskegon Oakridge (8-1) at Hopkins (8-1)
This is another of the few battles between league champions highlighting the first weekend; Hopkins won the O-K Silver and Oakridge claimed the West Michigan Conference title. Oakridge’s lone loss came on opening night to reigning Division 5 champion Grand Rapids West Catholic, and the Eagles fell just shy of playing for that title last fall losing to Menominee in a Semifinal. But Hopkins earned enough playoff points to host this week with a strong nonleague slate – in addition to beating Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian to win its O-K division, the Vikings also beat Schoolcraft and lost to Allendale in nonconference play. All three are playing this weekend as well.
Others that caught my eye: Lakeview (8-1) at Remus Chippewa Hills (7-2), Newaygo (7-2) at Reed City (7-2), Stockbridge (6-3) at Olivet (7-2) on Saturday.
Montrose (6-3) at Flint Beecher (9-0)
With its long winning tradition and after losing by only a point to Ithaca in a Semifinal last fall, Montrose might still be considered by some the favorite in this District opener – despite losing to Beecher 19-14 only two weeks ago in the deciding game of the GAC Red. In fact, Beecher will make its eighth straight playoff appearance and finished perfect for the regular season for the second time in six years, and made the Semifinals in 2012. Montrose did give the Buccaneers their toughest game this season – but the Rams have plenty to prove with three losses over their last five games and no wins this season over teams with winning records.
Others that caught my eye: Niles Brandywine (8-1) at Watervliet (8-1), Manchester (8-1) at Clinton (9-0), Schoolcraft (6-3) at Constantine (8-1).
Iron Mountain (6-3) at Iron River West Iron County (8-1)
Despite the shared mineral in their names, these schools actually are about 45 miles apart along the Michigan/Wisconsin border. But the rivalry burns as if they are neighbors, even though they also play in different leagues. They’ve faced each other annually for nearly 50 years and often twice of late with a rematch in the playoffs. West Iron won the first game this year, 24-0, but the Mountaineers are 5-1 since despite one-point wins each of the last two weeks.
Others that caught my eye: Ishpeming Westwood (6-3) at Ishpeming (8-0), Pewamo-Westphalia (7-2) at Union City (8-1), Homer (7-2) at Hudson (8-1).
Hillman (8-1) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (8-1)
This is a rematch of a 2012 playoff opener, a 62-14 Johannesburg-Lewiston win, but things have changed slightly. That year Hillman was an at-large qualifier at 5-4; this season the Tigers have only a loss to undefeated Whittemore-Prescott. The Cardinals have beaten three playoff teams, falling only to St. Ignace in Week 5, and quietly built on one of the consistently strong programs in the northern Lower Peninsula – they’ve won at least eight games four seasons running.
Others that caught my eye: Indian River Inland Lakes (7-2) at Munising (8-1), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (6-2) at Waterford Our Lady (8-1) on Saturday, Pittsford (7-2) at Climax-Scotts (8-1).
Bellaire (7-2) at Cedarville (8-1) on Saturday
Cedarville’s football program probably has looked forward to this week for nearly a year – the Trojans were upset 28-26 in their playoff opener last season by league foe Engadine, a year after a similar upset at the hands of rival Rapid River in a 2012 Regional Final. Cedarville seems on the cusp of big things again – but this time must first face Bellaire, another Bridge Football Alliance opponent. The Eagles are seeking their first 8-player win in five games against the Trojans after falling to them 57-14 only two weeks ago.
Others that caught my eye: Kingston (6-3) at Owendale-Gagetown (8-1), Portland St. Patrick (8-1) at Lawrence (9-0) on Saturday, New Haven Merritt Academy (6-3) at Morrice (5-4) on Saturday.
PHOTO: Mona Shores quarterback Tyree Jackson prepares to throw during last week’s victory over rival Muskegon. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sturr.)
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.)