By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Zach Gillespie was just part of what was out of rhythm for Lansing Catholic during the first half of Saturday’s Division 5 Final against Almont.
The senior quarterback headed into the break 2-of-6 passing for 16 yards with an interception, and had eight carries for nine yards – not at all characteristic for a standout who had thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and run for more than 550 through his first 13 games this season.
But somehow, the Cougars and Raiders were tied. And that meant Lansing Catholic was in position to win.
Gillespie stormed back with a big second half, the offense meeting halfway a defense that had kept the Cougars in the game, and the lessons of comebacks earlier this season made the difference in Lansing Catholic finishing a 31-17 win over Almont to earn its first Finals championship since 1985.
“I probably shouldn’t say that with these guys here, but I don’t think this team is the most talented team from top to bottom that we’ve ever had,” said Cougars coach Jim Ahern, who also brought Lansing Catholic to Ford Field in 2011 and 2014. “But I’ll tell ya, I don’t think I’ve had a team that has more chemistry and more heart than this group of kids did. We’ve been behind in a lot of games this year and they never quit, and I think that’s why.”
They call it a “21-7 mentality” and it was born from a loss this season, the sixth-straight over four seasons to rival Portland.
The Cougars (13-1) trailed in that Week 5 matchup 21-7 at halftime, and lightning forced the second half to be played the next day. Lansing Catholic came back to make the final score 21-20 – but even in defeat, the message hit home that the team can change the course of a game over the final two quarters. (And Lansing Catholic went on to defeat Portland 21-0 in the District Final.)
“We write it on the board at halftime – 21-7 mentality in the second half – and I think that was a big turning point coming out firing that game,” Cougars senior linebacker Sam Edwards said. “We’ve just carried that with us since, and it’s made us better.”
This time, as in many before, Gillespie led the way. He found his footing and touch after the break, completing 9-of-17 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns over the final two quarters and running for two scores as well.
Almont carried a 17-7 lead into the final two minutes of the third quarter. But Lansing Catholic scored 24 unanswered points to finish the game, with Gillespie shutting the door with a four-yard scoring run with 1:39 to play.
That followed touchdown passes of seven yards to senior Vince Salquist and 23 to senior Mitch Raphael, a soccer player last year who showed some delicate footwork getting one down before exiting the side of the end zone. Raphael’s score put the Cougars ahead 24-17 with 3:41 to play.
“We just knew. We knew we could come out and score with anyone,” Gillespie said. “We knew we had a couple three-and-outs, and it wasn’t going our way. We kinda just had all gas, no brakes, and weren’t just satisfied with going up seven there. We wanted to score again.
“I don’t think I could’ve had a worse first half. Especially in the state championship game, I went in at halftime and I was pretty down on myself. I (restored) the confidence in myself that I can make the throws, and I’ve got great playmakers that are going to catch it. Our line blocked pretty good in the second half … and everyone just got open for me and I was able to deliver.”
Almont (13-1) was making its first trip to the Finals for football, concluding an impressive run that saw it win on the road three of the first four weeks of the playoffs.
But the first half Saturday was frustrating, as the Raiders ended two drives throwing interceptions and a third giving up a fumble. The only first-half possession that didn’t end in a turnover finished with a touchdown.
Almont then scored on a field goal and touchdown on the first two possessions of the second half. But the Raiders threw another interception and fumbled the ball away again on the next two, allowing Lansing Catholic opportunities to catch up.
Senior Jack Paupert and junior Michael Lulgjuraj scored those Almont touchdowns, and Paupert ran 18 times for a team-high 78 yards. Senior Colby Schapman caught five passes for 80 yards. Senior Ryan Miller booted a 31-yard field goal to round out the team’s scoring.
Senior linebacker Jacob Hausmann with seven tackles led a defense that again this season measured up with the state’s best. The Raiders gave up just 11.6 points per game, holding teams below 15 per game for the sixth time in seven seasons. Lansing Catholic’s 31 points were the most surrendered by the Raiders since the 2017 playoffs.
“The backbone of our team is our defense. Coach (Ritchie) Feys does an excellent job preparing these guys, and these guys execut(e) the game plan,” Almont coach James Leusby said. “When we came out (after halftime) we were 0-0 ballgame, and we were going after it.”
Sophomore Alex Watters caught five passes for 107 yards for Lansing Catholic as Gillespie finished with 187 total through the air. Edwards had 19 tackles, recovered both fumbles and snagged an interception, and senior Daniel Magaway had 10 tackles as the Cougars locked down an offense that averaged 39.5 points this fall. Ahern directed the credit to assistants Kelly Carrier, Mike Doran and Pat Barner, who handle all of the defensive play-calling and made adjustments at halftime to slow down Almont’s outside running attack.
Ahern, meanwhile, claimed his first championship five decades after he began his head coaching career at Gobles in 1969. He spent more than three decades at Ithaca and came back from Florida in 2009 to take over at Lansing Catholic – going over 300 career wins this season and moving up to 11th on the in-state career list with a 301-152-6 record while coaching at those three Michigan high schools.
“When you get here and you don’t win, you don’t realize until I think months after that you had a great season. This is definitely a different feeling,” Ahern said.
“The message all week was let’s get him to 301,” Edwards said. “It means the world to me to be able to put on the jersey and play for this guy. It’s kinda bittersweet that I won’t get to do it again, but to end it on a high – there’s no one that deserves this more than this guy right here.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie follows his blockers during Saturday’s Division 5 Final. (Middle) Mitch Raphael (7) helps bring down Almont’s Michael Lulgjuraj.
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.)