With just a cursory glance at the 2020 results for the White Pigeon varsity football team, the Chiefs’ 4-3 record might not seem all that impressive.
Their opponents this year, however, know not to discount a program that has the potential to both reshape the Southwest 10 Conference standings by the end of the fall, but also to shake things up once the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 8 playoffs get rolling.
Losing two of those contests to eventual D8 champion Centreville — a 14-8 defeat in Week 2 and a 16-0 loss in the District championship game — White Pigeon’s only other misstep was a 26-24 loss to Mendon in what was the Hornets’ final season before moving to the 8-player ranks. White Pigeon’s District opener win over Saugatuck was the school’s first postseason victory since 2009.
The Chiefs are rolling so far this year with sizable wins over Saugatuck (48-6) and Galesburg-Augusta (38-7) to set up a conference opener this Friday against Decatur (1-1). Comstock is White Pigeon’s Week 4 opponent before the anticipated matchup with Centreville on Sept. 24.
"It definitely was a misleading (record) last year,” fourth-year head coach Shawn Strawser said. “(Centreville) was just a little better than us and ended up being state champs. Knowing that we were right there and that’s how close we could have been to having a nice run and being one of the better teams in the state … we watched those teams play and there wasn’t anybody that scared us. We would have loved to have chances against some of those schools last year.
"I think our guys seeing a team from our conference won a state title, it gives them some confidence that they can do that too if they work hard.”
Perhaps that wish will come true this year as Strawser’s Wing-T offense is pounding opposing defenses thus far despite the graduation of 12 seniors, only 17 players on the varsity roster and several underclassmen in starting roles. If so, it will be because of heart and not size.
At a preseason scrimmage, Strawser instituted a new rule as a result.
"The boys come walking down the sideline and they don’t have their pads on,” he said. “I said, ‘Dang it; what are you guys doing? Don’t you ever walk out here with your pads off. We ain’t intimidating nobody with our pads off, so go get them back on. Some people might see us with our pads off and they think we’re a JV team. But I’ll tell you what, we don’t play like a JV team.”
Seniors Jack Davidson and Dylan Carper so far have amassed staggering rushing production for the Chiefs, who have thrown the ball just three times. Davidson, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound fullback, ran for 299 yards and three touchdowns against Saugatuck and he added 137 yards and three more TDs vs. the Rams in Week 2. Carper, a 5-9, 165-pound back, piled up 130 yards and two scores in Week 1 and added 99 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week. The two also line up at linebacker — a position of strength for the White Pigeon defense
"Carper is a football player,” Strawser said. “You can play him anywhere. He’s the hardest hitter on the team. He could have had 300 yards the first night had I been giving him the ball more. Jack Davidson is not the type of fullback we had the first couple years. He sees holes really well and is a really strong runner.”
Of course, success begins up front with junior tight ends Jordan Stamper and Chris Jackson, left tackle Chaz Underwood (freshman), left guard Esteban Castro (junior), center Wyatt Carunchia (junior), right guard Luke Gropp (senior) and right tackle Seth Miller (sophomore).
"Our line has probably been the best it has been in a few years, so that’s a big reason why we get so many yards per carry and so many touchdowns,” Carper said. “Them doing their job consistently helps us a lot. It makes it really easy for us to just run through the big hole they made.
"It’s really fun watching Jack go for all these yards. And then the next thing you know, I get to carry and go for a big touchdown. We just get to go back and forth with each other. It’s fun to play and fun to watch. I’m faster than Jack, so I hit the hole quicker. But he’s more powerful and patient than I am. He waits for the hole to develop while I go right through it.”
Davidson has a unique perspective on how the front seven should operate having spent last season at left guard to shore up the offensive line.
"Yeah, I got yelled at a few times,” Davidson joked. “It made me understand how tough it is. I get now why they ask a lot of questions and that I have to be more patient in the backfield.”
"We knew it was going to be a one-year deal,” Strawser added of Davidson’s line days. “We were a little thin on the line last year and he stepped up and did a nice job. But we knew he’d be moving back this year.”
With the meat of the schedule ahead, the Chiefs believe they have what it takes to get to the next level.
"I just think we work really good as a team. And with us all working together, I think we can cause them some trouble,” Carper said. “Every year I think we’re in the mix for (a conference championship), but this year there is a good team at Centreville and at Comstock, so it should be a close race.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) White Pigeon’s Jack Davidson pulls away from a potential tackler last week against Galesburg-Augusta. (Middle) White Pigeon’s defensive front seven – including Davidson (30), Luke Gropp (54), Chris Jackson (8) and Jordan Stamper (84) – loads the box against Saugatuck during Week 1. (Below) Dylan Carper (21) gets to the edge against Saugatuck. (Photos courtesy of the White Pigeon football program.)
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.)