By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
HUDSON – It was a couple hours before kickoff for the Hudson Tigers, and head coach Tom Saylor didn’t think his team was focused enough.
“It was early on in our winning streak,” said Saylor. “Everybody was kind of laughing and just not thinking about the game. I told them to get on the bus and we drove right out of town, past the cemetery and I think we drove clear to Clayton (a town about six miles away). The players were thinking, ‘What is this guy doing?’”
The home game for Hudson turned into a road game – complete with a bus ride. A tradition was born.
“I thought we played better on road games,” said Saylor, who coached the Tigers through their record-setting 72-game win streak during the 1970s. “There weren’t so many distractions.”
Friday night, Hudson’s players will board the bus once more this season and take the trip from the high school locker room into downtown Hudson to Thompson Field, where the Tigers play their home games. Hudson will take on Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in a Division 7 District championship game.
The head coach now is Chris Luma, who was a quarterback for Hudson during part of that win streak. He said the bus ride is a little shorter these days, but remains a surreal moment for all Tigers players and coaches.
“Coach Saylor liked to only make right turns,” Luma said. “That was his thing. We’d go out of the school and only make right turns to get to the field. Now, we just come out of the school, go down Maple, go right past my house and turn and go to the stadium. It’s about a five-minute ride.”
And it takes place in total silence.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Tigers running back Malik Ray, who has more than 1,500 yards rushing. “It’s a really different experience. It’s legit. We get on the bus and some kids pray and others just think about the game. We don’t have time to mess around. Once we hit the seats, it’s go time. There’s no joking around. No way.”
Luma said every so often a young player will board the bus and talk or say something and a captain will quickly let him know the bus ride is done in silence.
“I’ll get on the bus, count them up and make sure we have everybody and give them the look,” he said. “It’s all quiet. We drive to the stadium, pull up and the players get out and go to the shed. Everyone has their own routine.”
Hudson has been home to a lot of big games on Friday nights over the years. The Tigers’ tradition is well known. Hudson held the national high school football winning streak record of 72 games for 22 years. Thompson Field has been the site of a lot of those Hudson wins and impactful games.
“The place has held more huge games than any other venue in Lenawee County over the past 60 plus years,” said Hudson sports historian Bill Mullaly. “Thompson Field has been around since 1955, and there have been many exciting, thrilling and very meaningful games played there with upwards of 5,000-plus people watching, especially back in the winning streak days.”
Before 1955, Hudson’s field was located in a low area right next to the current stadium, which sits on a hill in town and was moved because the old field was prone to flooding. The stadium is not on campus, somewhat atypical at the high school level.
Saylor used to live right next to the stadium, on the hill.
“I would wake up and see the stadium every morning,” he said.
Luma said the bus ride is different to the ‘home’ game than it is for an actual road game.
“When I was a player, I’d sit right next to Coach Saylor,” he said. “For road games, we’d go over my assignments, what he expected out of me. We’d talk about situations and what I should say or do in the huddle. I think those times sitting on the bus with him is one of the reasons I went into coaching.
“Riding to a home game, though, there was no talking. It’s still that way.”
Luma has had a remarkable coaching career at Hudson, winning 175 games, including a Division 7 championship in 2010. Friday will be Hudson’s second game ever against St. Mary, a traditional power from Monroe County with a couple of MHSAA championships to boast about – including its most recent in 2014, a Division 6 championship. The Falcons are competing for the first time in the Division 7 playoffs.
Ironically, both teams run the ‘T’ offense and both teams have strong rushing attacks. Hudson (9-1) was the Lenawee County Athletic Association champion while SMCC (6-4) got into the playoffs at 5-4 after navigating a difficult Huron League schedule.
No matter the weather, Thompson Field figures to be a packed house.
When it’s game time, Ray will board the bus, make the silent ride, get to the stadium and play catch for a few minutes with Hudson quarterback Andrew Valdez. When the team is ready to take the field, they’ll leave the shed and take turns with the rest of the team touching a sign above the door that says “The Team, The Team, The Team.”
Then – and only then – will it be game time.
“On the bus ride to the game, you’ll see people on the streets and they are waving at you and they are excited,” Ray said. “You can see joy in their eyes.
“Anytime you play in a playoff game, it’s a truly great experience. Playing one more game with these guys … its more than I can say.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudson’s players enter Thompson Field at the start of a game this season. (Middle) Malik Ray works to elude a Morenci defender during a Week 2 win. (Photos by Mike Dickie.)
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.)