By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The final Friday of the MHSAA football regular season always is one of the most celebratory and at the same time heart-breaking days of the entire school year.
For many, practice will continue Monday. But for the majority, tonight will mark the end of another season – or a high school career.
Fortunately for a number of those athletes, they and their teams still have control over how they'll be feeling when this night, and this weekend, is done. A total of 187 teams have qualified for the 256-team 11-player playoff field – including six teams that won their sixth games Thursday night – and 76 more can clinch a berth with a win tonight or Saturday. The 8-player field is more set, although movement could still occur among those in contention for the final spots in that 16-team field.
Here's a look at some of the games to keep an eye on this weekend, including league title games in the Detroit Public School League, Catholic League and Kensington Lakes Activities Association. And make sure to check in throughout the weekend to Score Center and then Sunday when playoff pairings are posted at 8 p.m.
Detroit and Southeast
Detroit Martin Luther King (7-0) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (8-0), Ford Field
This title decider at Ford Field has been among the most highly-anticipated games in Detroit since before the first kickoff of this season. Although this was the second since the 1990s that these schools played in different divisions of the Detroit PSL, that separation arguably has made the rivalry even bigger – especially with King stunning the reigning MHSAA Division 1 champ with a 44-13 win during last season’s PSL semifinals. Neither has come to losing since the early weeks of this season; Cass Tech hasn't given up more than six points in a game since opening night, and King hasn't let an opponent come closer than 28 points since Week 2.
Others that caught my eye: Birmingham Brother Rice (8-0) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (7-1), Saturday at Ford Field; Southfield (7-1) at Clarkston (7-1), Britton Deerfield (6-2) at Clinton (8-0), Walled Lake Western (8-0) at Northville (7-1).
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (7-1) at Muskegon (7-1)
This isn't as annual a scenario for Muskegon as most might think: The Big Reds did fall to Zeeland East by a point in Week 9 last season to finish second to the Chix in the O-K Black standings, but are still seeking their first league title since 2008. This is the first time Reeths-Puffer has posted a winning record since 2007, and it’s done so in impressive fashion with victories over one playoff qualifier and three more that can earn bids tonight. Still, Reeths-Puffer is seeking its first win over the Big Reds since 1999.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills (5-3) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (5-3), Holland West Ottawa (5-3) at Hudsonville (5-3), East Kentwood (5-3) at Rockford (7-1), Zeeland West (7-1) at Byron Center (6-2).
Menominee (8-0) at Marquette (5-2)
Marquette fell big to Menominee in 2012, but has won two of the last three between the Greater Northern UP Conference rivals – and can force a three-way tie for the league title by beating the Maroons tonight. Menominee has yet to be challenged significantly – only reigning Division 8 champion Harbor Beach has gotten within 20 points of the Maroons this season as they've built the second-highest playoff point average among teams expected to fall into Division 5.
Others that caught my eye: St. Ignace (7-1) at Cheboygan (6-2), L'Anse (7-1) at Munising (5-3), Crystal Falls Forest Park (8-0) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (5-3), Newberry (3-5) at Sault Ste. Marie (5-3).
Bay and Thumb
Fenton (8-0) at Lapeer West (7-1)
Beating second-place Lapeer West tonight would give Fenton 20 straight Flint Metro League victories and make outright another league title, the Tigers’ third straight. But Lapeer West also has a fine football tradition stretching back into the late 1980s, and the Panthers would love nothing more in their final regular season game than to win a share of one more league title. Lapeer West will combine with Lapeer East next fall.
Others that caught my eye: Lake Fenton (7-1) at Montrose (8-0), Davison (4-4) at Flint Carman-Ainsworth (7-1), Sanford Meridian (7-1) at Clare (6-2), Plymouth (5-3) at Grand Blanc (6-2).
Southwest and Border
Watervliet (8-0) at Lawton (8-0)
This trumps Edwardsburg/Paw Paw as the top game from the southwest and border areas because a league title is on the line. Watervliet and Lawton split the Southwestern Athletic Conference South title last season, and one of the two has won the league the last four seasons – with Lawton also finishing second the two times Watervliet finished first. The Panthers survived a three-point scare last week against Decatur and can finish their first perfect regular season since 1999.
Others that caught my eye: Edwardsburg (8-0) at Paw Paw (8-0), Battle Creek Pennfield (7-1) at Constantine (5-3), Saugatuck (7-1) at Gobles (5-3), Battle Creek St. Philip (8-0) at Lawrence (6-1).
Lower Up North
Boyne City (7-1) at Grayling (7-1)
This highly-anticipated Lake Michigan Conference deciding game has come to fruition thanks to some close calls including two Grayling wins by a touchdown or less and Boyne City’s victory last week over motivated Elk Rapids. This is a repeat of the 2012 scenario; both also entered that Week 9 game undefeated before Grayling won 21-0.
Others that caught my eye: Mio (7-1) at Lincoln Alcona (8-0), Kalkaska (6-2) at Elk Rapids (5-3), Cadillac (8-0) at Traverse City Central (5-3), Petoskey (5-3) at Ogemaw Heights (5-3).
Homer (8-0) at Grass Lake (7-1)
This is the showcase game of the Cascades/Big 8 Conference crossover series, with Grass Lake one of three that shared the Cascades title and Homer the outright champion in the Big 8. The Trojans also are attempting to finish their first perfect regular season since 2005. The last time these teams met was in 2004.
Others that caught my eye: Jackson Lumen Christi (8-0) at Howell (5-3), Grand Ledge (4-4) at Holt (4-4), New Lothrop (8-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (8-0) at Alma College, Chelsea (2-6) at Haslett (5-3).
PHOTO: Detroit Cass Tech (green jerseys) will attempt to avenge last season's Detroit Public School League playoff loss to Martin Luther King when those teams meet tonight in this season's championship game. (Photo courtesy of Detroit PSL.)
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.)