By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Logan Hessbrook started at quarterback for Ithaca’s junior varsity last season as a sophomore, and probably would start for a few hundred teams that don't have the luxury of all-state quarterbacks every season.
But neither takes away from the fact that he’d taken only one or two reps at the position during the last four weeks of practice. With junior superstar Travis Smith behind center, there really wasn't a need.
So when Smith was injured on his team's second play of Friday’s MHSAA Division 6 Final at Ford Field, his coach and top receiver were quick to offer encouragement.
“I said, ‘Listen bud. Travis isn't coming back,’” Ithaca coach (and Logan’s uncle) Terry Hessbrook said. “’We’re going to live and die with you. Just play the way you’re capable of playing.’”
Senior Markes Gadlen – a three-year starting receiver and the third-string quarterback – also took Logan aside. “I can’t see over the line,” Gadlen told him, “so I was just letting him know he’s all we've got.”
And Hessbrook was more than enough.
Ithaca won its third straight MHSAA title – with a third quarterback leading the way – by downing Constantine 37-27. It was the second straight season the teams met in the championship game.
And Hessbrook was the most unlikely of heroes. Sure, he’s a starting defensive back. But in his number 26 jersey, he couldn't have looked more out of place running the offense – until he led it to four straight scores to break the game open midway through the fourth quarter.
“I was obviously nervous at the beginning, but I settled in as the game went on, and my teammates kept picking me up,” Hessbrook said. “They were saying you’re all right, we can help you, we can pick you up. The linemen did a great job blocking, the receivers did a good job blocking on the edge, and they ran good routes. We just did what we could do.”
The win also gave Ithaca its third straight 14-0 season. That streak of 42 straight victories is fourth in MHSAA history and two from tying for second. It’s also second and one win shy of the longest streak among those that took place entirely within the playoff era that began in 1975.
The Yellowjackets have beaten opponents by an average of 37 points over those games. And this season, they scored their most points (675, good for third-most in MHSAA history) and gave up their fewest (110) of the streak. But this game had all the signs of a streak buster.
“This might be the toughest game we've ever been a part of,” Terry Hessbrook said. “We haven’t faced a lot of adversity during this run. And a lot of our games have been over in the second or the third quarter. For these players to continue to fight the way they (were), I can’t put it into words and I can’t express how proud I am of the way they just kept fighting.”
Smith was hurt on a four-yard run on his team’s second play from scrimmage. But after that and despite his sizable absence, this rematch began playing out a lot like the teams' matchup in 2011.
Like last season, Ithaca and Constantine went into halftime tied – this time 20-20. And like last season, Ben Mallo and the Falcons’ run game was doing just about everything they wanted.
That’s hardly rare – the team ran for 6,407 yards on the season. And in this game, Constantine ran for 287 yards during the first half, and Mallo had 147. But after the Yellowjackets reviewed their assignments during halftime, the Falcons added only 130 more yards over the final two quarters.
And Logan Hessbrook looked like yet another star Ithaca quarterback. After completing just 2 of 5 passes this season heading into the game, he hit 7 of 13 for 104 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 113 yards and two more scores.
“ We've struggled all year stopping people defensively. So when we game-planned to stop Ithaca, it wasn't to stop Travis Smith, so to speak,” Constantine coach Shawn Griffith said. “They did step up, I think, and show the ability to run a little bit better than we thought they were capable of doing when we came into the game. And they still hit the big pass when they needed to. You don’t win 42 straight football games because of one good football player. You've got to have a stable of them, and he’s got quite a few.”
While Ithaca’s second-half possessions amounted to 17 points, Constantine’s turned into seven – and included a turnover on downs, a lost fumble and a punt that was blocked by senior Tyler Gibson and eventually led to a field goal.
Constantine did end up with 504 total yards. Mallo ran for 207 and a touchdown – and had 12 tackles at linebacker – and sophomore Justin Hull added 102 yards and a score on the ground. Senior Tommy Reed, who didn't get to play quarterback in last season’s Final because of an injury, ran for a score and had 10 tackles at safety.
The Falcons finished 11-3 and made their run after finishing third in the Kalamazoo Valley Association.
“We were all seniors, and we all wanted to get back. We didn't want football to end, because for most of us this is our last chance,” Reed said. “Once the playoffs came, we finally started playing as a team. Our defense picked up and our offense continued to roll.
“To get back here, we had a couple turnovers that went our way, and we were able to convert on every turnover. This game was the opposite. We had a couple of turnovers and we couldn't convert, and the one we turned over to them they ended up converting. That’s what hurt us.”
Senior Jared Evers ran for one score and caught a pass for another for Ithaca. Senior Josh Capen had a team-high 10 tackles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca quarterback Logan Hessbrook (26) eludes Constantine defenders during one of his runs Friday. (Middle) Ithaca receiver Markes Gadlen hauls in a touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. (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.)