By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
It's opening night of another MHSAA football season. Not much more needs to be said to describe why athletes, coaches and communities are stepping a little higher with the first varsity kickoffs only a few hours away.
Every game and every team has a story. And each week Second Half will bring you the best game in each of seven regions around the state, plus another five from each that should be worth following for even casual fans.
Make sure to visit MHSAA.com tonight and all weekend for a complete statewide scoreboard, and return to Second Half on Monday as we wrap up the most significant results from another opening night.
(Team records that follow are from 2012, and all games are tonight unless noted. Games are designated by region based on home team. Visit the MHSAA Score Center for a complete schedule.)
Oak Park (9-3) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (11-3), Friday at Wayne State University
When last we left Oak Park, the Knights were celebrating a team record for wins, their first playoff appearance since 2005 plus league and District championships. They can kick off 2013 by giving proof they’ll be contenders again; St. Mary’s is coming off an overtime loss to Grand Rapids Christian in a memorable MHSAA Final and always is in the hunt.
Others that caught my eye: Rockford (10-3) at Utica Eisenhower (8-3) on Friday, Detroit Cass Tech (12-2) at Southfield (7-4) on Friday, Pontiac Notre Dame (9-2) at Dearborn Heights Robichaud (9-2), Macomb Dakota (10-2) at Dearborn Fordson (7-3), Zeeland West (7-4) at Detroit Country Day (11-1).
Bay and Thumb
Saginaw Nouvel (9-3) at Saginaw Swan Valley (10-3)
This is a rare matchup between Saginaw powers, but one with interesting history nonetheless. The teams have met only three times – most recently in 2001, when Nouvel beat the Vikings 30-0 in a Division 5 District Final. Nouvel also shut Swan Valley out in season openers in 1984 and 1985. But 2,000-yard rusher Alex Grace and teammates also back from last season’s MHSAA Semifinal run should find the end zone this time regardless of the final score.
Others that caught my eye: Reese (10-1) at Montrose (10-2), Hemlock (9-2) at Frankenmuth (10-1), Marine City (8-2) at Richmond (7-4), Armada (5-4) at Flint Powers Catholic (11-1), Clare (9-3) at Freeland (6-4).
Lower Up North
Big Rapids (8-2) at Reed City (10-1)
Reed City eventually finished first and Big Rapids second in the Central State Activities Association in 2012 after Reed City edged the Cardinals 14-6 on opening night. The Coyotes went on to win 10 straight before falling in their District Final. This matchup should set the tone again in one of the few league races that begins on opening night.
Others that caught my eye: Boyne City (8-2) at Maple City Glen Lake (9-2), Roscommon (6-4) at Grayling (9-1), Elk Rapids (4-5) at Mancelona (10-1), Carrollton (8-2) at Standish-Sterling (7-4), New Lothrop (10-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (4-5).
Grand Rapids Christian (13-1) at Grand Rapids South Christian (11-3)
Three months after continuing their annual opening-night game in 2012, Grand Rapids Christian won the MHSAA Division 3 championship a day after South Christian won the Division 4 title. The Eagles will have a significantly different look at least on offense this time after graduating most of their skill players and losing record-setting receiver Drake Harris for reportedly a month with a leg injury. South Christian quarterback Jon Wassink won’t be familiar to those who watched last season’s Finals – he was injured during the run and didn’t play in the championship game. But he’s back to lead another strong effort.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Catholic Central (10-1) at East Grand Rapids (4-5), River Rouge (11-1) at Lowell (8-3), Muskegon Oakridge (10-1) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-4), Byron Center (5-4) at Grand Rapids Northview (7-3), Holland Christian (5-5) at Zeeland East (9-1).
Williamston (7-4) at Ithaca (14-0)
The Yellowjackets have won 42 straight games including the last three MHSAA Division 6 Finals, and are led by senior all-state quarterback Travis Smith. A win would tie Ithaca with 1977-82 Cheboygan for the longest winning streak in MHSAA history falling fully during the playoff era (Morenci won 44 straight before playoffs were added, and Hudson’s 72-game victory streak ended during the first year of the playoffs in 1975.) Williamston hasn’t given the Yellowjackets much of a scare during the first two years of their opening-night series, but could be the best bet as stopper until playoff time.
Others that caught my eye: Lansing Catholic (8-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (9-4), Lansing Waverly (6-4) at Lansing Everett (9-1), Haslett (4-5) at East Lansing (7-4), Dundee (6-4) at Grass Lake (10-2), Beal City (13-1) at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (9-2) on Friday.
Southwest and Border
Battle Creek Harper Creek (10-3) at Mattawan (10-2)
Harper Creek kicks off its quest for a third straight season of double-digit wins against a Mattawan team coming off a school record for wins and 18 total over the last two seasons. They last met in a 2005 playoff opener. It will be a strong opening test for teams with league title aspirations again; Harper Creek won the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East last season, and Mattawan finished second in the SMAC West.
Others that caught my eye: Portage Central (7-4) at Sturgis (5-4), Marshall (6-4) at Stevensville Lakeshore (11-1), Otsego (6-4) at Edwardsburg (6-4), Fowler (9-2) at Mendon (11-1), Ottawa Lake Whiteford (8-2) at Blissfield (6-5).
Manistique (6-4) at Negaunee (10-2) on Friday
Negaunee has had only one losing season over the last 23 and won the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference title last year ahead of eventual MHSAA Division 7 champion Ishpeming. Manistique finished with a winning record for the first time in four years despite opening with losses to Negaunee and Ishpeming, and could be in the title hunt in the MPAC.
Others that caught my eye: Traverse City Central (4-5) at Marquette (5-4), Iron Mountain (5-5) at Ishpeming (13-1), Stephenson (8-3) at Ishpeming Westwood (3-6) on Friday, Hancock (3-6) at Bessemer (6-3) on Saturday, Brimley (2-6) at Eben Junction Superior Central (6-3).
PHOTO: Ithaca takes the field for its MHSAA Semifinal last season at Saginaw Valley State University. The Yellowjackets have won 42 straight games. (Click for 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.)