By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
DETROIT — A funny thing happened on Drake Harris’ way to hoops stardom.
He discovered he’s even greater on the gridiron.
The junior wide receiver didn’t intend to play high school football at Grand Rapids Christian, but now figures that’s his meal ticket in college — and perhaps beyond — after a record-breaking season that culminated with an epic performance in the MHSAA Division 3 championship game against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
Harris made three clutch catches in the final eight minutes to keep scoring drives alive and finished with a MHSAA Finals record of 243 yards on eight catches in the Eagles’ 40-37 overtime victory Saturday night at Ford Field.
Twice on the game-tying drive, Harris made leaping catches on fourth down. His 7-yarder on fourth-and-three and 15-yarder on fourth-and-eight set up a 28-yard field goal by Joel Schipper with four seconds left in the fourth quarter.
After the Eagles stopped St. Mary’s on fourth-and-three on the first series of overtime, Schipper came out on first down and kicked the championship-clinching 27-yard field goal.
In the process, Harris became only the 12th player nationally and first from Michigan to rack up 2,000 receiving yards for one season. He finished the season with 2,016.
“It’s a great achievement for me,” Harris said. “I have to thank the quarterback, the line and my coaching staff for putting me in the right position to make plays. All I care about is that state championship.”
It's the first for Grand Rapids Christian, which also made its first MHSAA Final appearance and finished this fall 13-1. St. Mary's, last season's Division 3 champion, ended 11-3.
Harris had hoop dreams coming into high school, figuring he would specialize in basketball to enhance his college opportunities. After getting talked into playing football by Eagles coach Don Fellows, Harris discovered a hidden talent. He wound up making a verbal commitment last summer to Michigan State to play both sports, but football may eventually win out.
“I never realized the talent I had for football,” the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Harris said. “I’m putting it all together. I’m going to keep working hard to achieve my goals.
“(MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo) loves players that play football. He told me that. He encouraged me. He’s with me with the whole situation and loves that I play football. I’m kind of starting to lean more towards football. I just feel like I’m probably better in football and that I can go further in football.”
Grand Rapids Christian quarterback Alex VanDeVusse was 16 for 26 for 307 yards and a touchdown, but deflected any credit for his performance to his outstanding wide receiver. VanDeVusse noted that a couple of Harris’ catches late in the game came on passes that would’ve eluded the grasp of most high school receivers.
“He makes me look really, really good,” VanDeVusse said. “Balls that are behind him, he slows down and catches it with one hand if he has to. Balls that are too high, he jumps and gets flipped. People don’t necessarily think he’s tough or something, but to have a guy go three or four feet in the air to get flipped, catch the ball and land on his back and his head, he’s pretty tough in my book. I’ll take him on my team every single day. He’s amazing.”
VanDeVusse looked to Harris in every clutch situation, of which there were several in a wild fourth quarter.
“We joke around that he’s our toy,” VanDeVusse said. “If you have a toy, you’re going to want to play with it all the time. We use him a lot and he does every bit that we ask of him.”
The Eaglets knew that Harris would be targeted when Grand Rapids Christian needed a big play, but even double coverage couldn’t stop him.
“He makes you shift,” St. Mary’s coach George Porritt said. “You have to bring more people to him. You can’t guard him with one. It might leave somebody else open. He forces you to bring two, maybe three.”
A 42-yard run by VanDeVusse gave Grand Rapids Christian a 20-7 lead with 4:42 left in the first half, but St. Mary’s rallied behind a ground game that rolled up 459 yards to take its first lead at 30-27 with 9:37 left in the fourth quarter.
Harris made a 38-yard catch on third-and-27 with 8:00 remaining, one play before a 32-yard touchdown run by Seth McIntosh put the Eagles ahead 34-30 with 7:45 to go.
St. Mary’s then marched 80 yards in 12 plays to grab a 37-34 lead with 2:06 left on a 3-yard run by Grant Niemiec.
Harris made four catches for 47 yards on the ensuing drive, which culminated in Schipper’s game-tying field goal.
St. Mary’s got the ball first in overtime. A pass by Matt Linehan intended for running back Parker McInnis in the end zone fell incomplete on fourth-and-three.
Grand Rapids Christian didn’t hesitate to bring in Schipper to end the game with his right foot on first down.
“I knew it was a big kick starting off, but I just tried to block it all out,” Schipper said. “It felt just like at practice. Coach puts a lot of pressure on us during the week so these situations don’t come as big in the games. That really helped me. I’m just glad I could get the win for the team tonight.
“He’s got the whole team screaming in my ear in practice when I’m trying to make field goals. That really helps in this environment.”
St. Mary’s lost, despite setting a finals record with 579 yards of total offense. The teams combined for a record 1,033 yards.
McInnis ran 25 times for 269 yards, while Niemiec carried 28 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns for St. Mary’s.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Christian receiver Drake Harris runs away from two Orchard Lake St. Mary's defenders for some of his record-breaking yardage Saturday. (Middle) The Eagles celebrate their first MHSAA championship. (Click for more from 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.)