By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Let's face it. In high school football especially, it's tough to predict which teams will be around when the big trophies are awarded Thanksgiving weekend. It wouldn't take much research to figure out how many top-ranked favorites have fallen long before finishing the drive for Detroit.
But here's a little indicator that's bearing out as this season's playoffs rush into their third weekend.
Of 64 teams still alive in the 11-player brackets, 53 ranked among the top half of their respective divisions in playoff point average. The four teams remaining in the 8-player bracket all ranked among the top six in that division.
That's rather logical, you might say. But it's also an endorsement for playing tough competition, and further makes it special when a team with a lower average breaks through at the end.
Those teams still alive despite bottom-16 playoff point averages? Congrats on great efforts by Detroit Catholic Central, Caledonia, St. Johns, Three Rivers, Clare, Newaygo, Constantine, Britton-Deerfield, Pewamo-Westphalia, Flint Beecher and Johannesburg-Lewiston.
This week's games are split evenly between Friday and Saturday, with 17 each day. Four Friday games will be streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com's Prep Zone: Montrose at Ithaca, Detrot Cass Tech at Saline, Saginaw Swan Valley at Croswell-Lexington and Three Rivers at Grand Rapids South Christian.
Below are all of the Regional Finals with a little extra on some of the best matchups, plus a look at both 8-player Semifinals. Visit the MHSAA Score Center for game times and dates, and all weekend for updated scores and schedules.
Rockford (9-2) at Clarkston (11-0)
These two easily come to mind when Division 1 football is discussed. But oddly enough, they've never met. The Wolves are playing for their fourth Semifinal berth and second in four seasons, and were the most popular pick in Division 1 heading into the playoffs. But three-time MHSAA champion Rockford is finally humming after opening 1-2 this fall and losing quarterback Kyle Short for a time. He’s back, and the Rams are playing in their fifth-straight Regional Final.
Other Regional Finals: Detroit Catholic Central (7-4) at Plymouth (9-2), Detroit Cass Tech (9-2) at Saline (10-1), Macomb Dakota (10-1) at Lake Orion (10-1).
Muskegon (10-1) at Midland (11-0)
The Big Reds no doubt enjoyed a sigh of relief after edging Lowell in last week’s District Final. But life gets no easier. Midland is working toward what would be the first 14-0 season in its similarly-impressive history, and is keyed by a likely all-state candidate at quarterback in Alec Johnson. Not that Muskegon will be intimidated – this will be its eighth game this fall against a playoff team.
Other Regional Finals: Caledonia (8-3) at Mattawan (10-1), Birmingham Brother Rice (9-2) at Walled Lake Western (9-2), Oak Park (9-2) at Wyandotte Roosevelt (10-1).
Grand Rapids Christian (10-1) at Stevensville Lakeshore (11-0)
This may be the game of the weekend in Michigan. Neither has lost to an in-state team – Christian’s only defeat was to Ohio power Cincinnati Moeller – and both have crushed the majority of their opponents this fall. The Eagles scored a season-high 68 points against Zeeland West last week thanks to four touchdown passes plus four touchdown runs by quarterback Alex VandeVusse. This is Lakeshore’s fifth Regional Final over the last decade, and comes after a perfect run through the Southwest Michigan Activities Conference West – one of the state’s most competitive leagues this season.
Other Regional Finals: St. Johns (8-3) at DeWitt (9-2), Tecumseh (9-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (9-2), Detroit East English (9-2) at Orchard Lake St. Mary (9-2).
Grosse Ile (10-1) at Detroit Country Day (9-2)
The Red Devils have won 10 games for the second straight season after making the Semifinals in 2011. This fall’s success has come against a schedule that has included six playoff teams. Country Day’s slate has included only three teams that made the postseason, but the Yellow Jackets beat a strong one last week in Pontiac Notre Dame and opened the playoffs by dropping previously-undefeated Clinton Township Clintondale 35-0.
Other Regional Finals: West Branch Ogemaw Heights (8-3) at Comstock Park (10-1), Three Rivers (8-3) at Grand Rapids South Christian (8-3), Saginaw Swan Valley (9-2) at Croswell-Lexington (11-0).
River Rouge (11-0) at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard (10-1)
As written on 2H on Monday, River Rouge is one of the best stories of the season – the Panthers are 11-0 for the first time and before last month had won a playoff game only once, in 2001. But this week’s opponent easily will be their toughest this season. Gabriel Richard hasn't given up a point in the playoffs, with a 24-0 win last week over a strong Lake Fenton team.
Other Regional Finals: Clare (9-2) at Menominee (10-1), Newaygo (9-2) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (8-3), Portland (10-1) at Flint Powers Catholic (11-0).
Montrose (10-1) at Ithaca (11-0)
One of these weeks, an opponent is going to provide a strong challenge to Ithaca’s 39-game winning streak. Montrose might be it. The two have met in the playoffs the last two seasons, with Ithaca winning only 28-13 in last season’s District Final. Granted, it doesn't look as good for the Rams after surviving by a point in the District Semifinal and by just five against a good Millington team last week. But expect Montrose to bring its best, and Ithaca to match in front of a crowd that could approach 3,000 fans.
Other Regional Finals: Shelby (9-2) at Negaunee (10-1), Constantine (9-2) at Hillsdale (11-0), Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (9-2) at Grass Lake (10-1).
Britton Deerfield (8-3) at Detroit Loyola (11-0)
The Britton-Macon Tories hadn't made the MHSAA playoffs since reaching the Semifinals in 2000, before the school combined in 2010 with Deerfield – which hadn't fielded a football team since 1992. Britton-Deerfield has made the playoffs both years of its existence and has improved two wins on last season’s finish so far. Loyola had easily the highest playoff point average in Division 7 entering the playoffs and is in the Regional Final for the second year in a row. The Bulldogs also entered 11-0 last season and were shut out by Hudson, but have upped their offensive average this fall by a touchdown to more than 46 points per game.
Other Regional Finals: Lake City (10-1) at Ishpeming (10-1), Pewamo-Westphalia (8-3) at Decatur (9-2), Flint Beecher (7-4) at Saginaw Nouvel (9-2).
St. Ignace (11-0) at Felch North Dickinson (10-0)
The Saints are playing for their second straight Semifinal berth, but it’s fair to say they’re even better this time around. After giving up a respectable 16 points per game last season, St. Ignace is giving up an average of only five and has five shutouts (not counting the forfeit win over Rudyard in Week 3). North Dickinson’s most noticeable improvement this fall has come on offense – the Nordics have upped their points per game from 38 in 2011 to 50 this fall.
Other Regional Finals: Johannesburg-Lewiston (9-2) at Beal City (11-0), Muskegon Catholic Central (8-3) at Mendon (11-0), Waterford Our Lady (9-2) at Harbor Beach (10-1).
Bellaire (8-3) at Rapid River (10-1)
It’s fair to call these teams two of the original powers in MHSAA 8-player football. Bellaire is 24-8 since making the switch in 2010, and that season finished “mythical” runner-up, that being the term because the championship game was organized by the two leagues and was not an MHSAA playoff game. Rapid River is 20-4 in two seasons as an 8-player program, and was the runner-up in last season’s inaugural championship game. The Rockets stunned the 8-player community last week by beating Cedarville 22-14 after falling to the Trojans 72-12 on Sept. 28.
Deckerville (10-1) at Portland St. Patrick (11-0)
These are both first-year 8-player programs, and it’s fair to say their moves were good ones. Deckerville’s only loss also was to Cedarville, but that was back on the final day of August. The Eagles' run opened with a 42-39 win over reigning MHSAA champ Carsonville-Port Sanilac. All but one of the Shamrocks' opponents were from the southwest part of the Lower Peninsula, but St. Patrick shouldn't be stunned by facing a little bit tougher competition after years of 11-player in the highly-competitive Central Michigan Athletic Conference.
PHOTO: Detroit Country Day senior Trevor Woodland (2) tries to break a tackle by Pontiac Notre Dame senior Mark Juriga during last week’s District Final win for the Yellow Jackets. (Click to see more at 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.)