By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The following statement is both rare and thrilling to announce:
We are guaranteed Saturday to celebrate two first-time MHSAA champions at the 8-Player Football Finals at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.
In fact, three of Saturday’s four finalists will be playing in their first championship game. Both Division 1 contenders – Morrice and Pickford – are making their first trips past the Semifinals. In Division 2, Rapid River is a two-time runner-up and Onekama another first-time finalist.
Kickoff for the Division 1 game is 11 a.m., with the Division 2 game following at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and one is good for admittance to both games. Both games also will be broadcast live on FOXSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports app, and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel on Nov. 20 – Division 1 at 8 p.m. and Division 2 at 11 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a look at all four finalists. Team “rankings” are based on their playoff-point averages heading into the postseason.
Record/rank: 12-0, No. 4
Coach: Kendall Crockett, fifth season (41-14)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Red
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 40-8 over No. 5 Colon in Semifinal, 44-14 over No. 2 Wyoming Tri-unity Christian in Regional Final, 34-14 over No. 8 Deckerville, 40-0 over Division 2 No. 5 Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.
Players to watch: QB Hunter Nowak 5-11/164 sr. (1,922 yards/33 TDs rushing, 529 yards/8 TDs passing), RB/LB Austin Edington 5-9/152, sr. (851 yards/15 TDs rushing, 313 yards/4 TDs receiving; 54 tackles), OG/NG Sam Koresky 5-7/170 sr. (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), FB/LB Connor Lucas, 5-10/180 sr. (91 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss).
Outlook: Morrice had an often-solid 11-player program before switching to 8-player in 2014, and has since become elite. The Orioles are a combined 21-2 over the last two seasons and have allowed only 62 points this fall over 11 games (one win was a forefeit) – with six straight shutouts from Weeks 5-10. Junior defensive back Shane Cole with seven interceptions leads an opportunistic unit that is enjoying nearly three turnovers per game. Nowak made the all-state team as a junior and will enter the record book with 232 points and counting this fall.
Record/rank: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Josh Rader, 16th season (99-53)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Conference East
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 50-20 over No. 3 AuGres-Sims in Semifinal, 48-42 over No. 7 Suttons Bay in Regional Final, 52-7 over Division 2 No. 2 Engadine, 58-12 over Division 2 No. 7 Rapid River.
Players to watch: QB/LB Jimmy Storey, 6-0/180 jr. (1,638 yards/30 TDs passing, 920 yards/18 TDs rushing; 89 tackles, 3 interceptions); RB/DB Stephen LaMothe, 5-9/165 jr. (913 yards/15 TDs rushing; 4 interceptions); RB Matt Bush, 5-10/170 jr. (786 yards/10 TDs rushing; 62 tackles); SE/DE Nick Edington, 6-8/220, jr. (836 yards/16 TDs receiving; 46 tackles).
Outlook: Pickford also has been on the cusp of this opportunity, emerging from a third-straight Semifinal appearance to make the championship game for the first time. The Panthers are a combined 39-7 since switching to 8-player four seasons ago, and the dominance should continue as only two of this year’s players are seniors (although both start). Storey guides an offense averaging 54 points per game that hasn’t slowed in the playoffs with 51, 48 and 50 in its three postseason wins. Juniors Isaiah May (96 tackles) and Sam Burton (67 tackles/12 sacks) are two more impact players.
Record/rank: 10-2, No. 4
Coach: John Neph, second season (19-4)
League finish: Third in Midwest Central Michigan Conference West
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 28-14 over No. 10 Portland St. Patrick in Semifinal, 52-0 over No. 8 Brethren in Regional Final, 22-6 (Pre-Regional) and 30-0 over No. 12 Marion.
Players to watch: HB/LB Ben Acton, 6-2/175 sr. (726 yards/7 TDs rushing, 241 yards/2 TDs receiving); QB/DB Luke Mauntler (5-8/145) jr. (659 yards/9 TDs passing, 433 yards/6 TDs rushing); HB/LB Aaron Powers, 6-0/175 jr. (625 yards/11 TDs rushing); WR/DB Ben Johnson, 6-0/150, sr. (6 interceptions).
Outlook: The Portagers navigated a tough league finishing behind two Division 1 playoff teams and just ahead of reigning Division 1 champion Central Lake before opening up their longest postseason run ever. Onekama is another 8-player success story at 19-4 over the last two seasons after a solid recent run in 11-player as well. The numbers above might seem modest, but the team played only 10 games on the field as two wins came by forfeit. Not modest is the defense’s giving up only 8.1 points per game, with the team’s two losses by a mere seven points combined.
Record/rank: 9-3, No. 7
Coach: Steve Ostrenga, 20th season (109-82)
League finish: Third in Great Lakes Conference East
Championship history: 8-Player (one division) runner-up 2011, 2013.
Best wins: 36-30 (Semifinal) and 28-20 over No. 16 Cedarville, 40-34 over No. 14 Crystal Falls Forest Park in Regional Final, 20-18 over No. 2 Engadine in Pre-Regional.
Players to watch: RB/S Tyler Sundling, 5-11/170, jr. (1,252 yards/16 TDs rushing, 504 yards/7 TDs receiving); QB/S Brent Lundquist, 6-3/180 sr. (1,424 yards/21 TDs passing); RB/LB Azariah Hernandez, 5-6/135, jr. (870 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/DL Gunner Larson, 6-1/240 sr. (945 yards/8 TDs rushing).
Outlook: Rapid River has developed one of the strongest 8-player traditions during this first decade of the format in Michigan, appearing in the inaugural championship game and now heading for its third Finals. The Rockets held off league rival Cedarville for a second time last week after upsetting GLC East runner-up Engadine in the playoff opener and just two weeks after losing that matchup by 18. If this game is close, Rapid River can dig deep – five wins are by eight points or fewer. Senior Nate Olson is another two-way starter and the leading receiver with 685 yards and eight scores on 26 catches.
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.)