MARQUETTE --- Martin had it easy last year, at least from a stress and anxiety standpoint.
Sure, the 8-Player Division 1 Final was competitive in the first half, but Martin went on to win the championship game by 50 points, hardly anything to sweat too much about.
But this year?
Martin took possession of the ball on its own 15-yard-line with 1:15 on the clock and trailing by two scores, 26-14, to an Indian River Inland Lakes team determined to win its first Finals title on the football field.
And Martin won. A state title game for the ages, the Clippers claimed it 30-26 to repeat as champions despite also trailing 20-0 to start the fourth quarter.
It was still a 20-point margin, 26-6, when the Bulldogs scored what seemed to be the insurance points they needed with 6:26 left.
“It’s amazing,” Martin coach Brad Blauvelt said. “I’m not gonna lie – doubt creeps into your head when it’s 20-6, they’re driving down the field, they’re running the clock. … We made plays, we made plays when it counted the most.”
Inland Lakes built its big lead with a stout red zone defense – Martin got there on every one of its possessions but didn’t cash in until the final quarter – and a four-touchdown day from junior quarterback Aidan Fenstermaker.
It was the first Finals appearance for Inland Lakes, which had its two winningest seasons over the last three years. Coach Travis Meyer’s message to the team after such a heartbreaking loss was about focusing on getting here – no easy feat itself – and about the upperclassmen guiding the rest of the team so that their run of success isn’t complete.
“No one in the state, based on any rankings, based on any newspaper articles, based on anything really, expected us to do what we did,” Meyer said. “And then even the ones that weren’t totally shocked that we were here didn’t think it was going to be a four-point game. Regardless of when the points were scored, that’s still a four-point game, that’s a hell of a state championship. That could have gone lots of different ways, and I don’t think anybody really expected us to give them a shot.”
They certainly did that. Martin, though, had an epic response.
The Clippers scored quickly, going 70 yards in a minute and a half, with Haylen Buell’s one-yard touchdown run pulling the Clippers within 26-14 with 4:54 left.
The Bulldogs recovered the Martin onside kick attempt and marched right into the red zone on the ensuing drive. But they turned it over on downs with 1:33 left.
That meant Martin had to go 85 yards just to pull within one possession with the clock even more daunting than the distance.
It took them a minute. The Clippers capped the drive as Taegan Harris caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Gavin Meyers with 33 seconds to go. The conversion pass made it 26-22.
Everything came down to the onside kick by sophomore Ben Romero. The bouncing ball went off at least two Inland Lakes players before Martin’s Mike Branch recovered it.
Martin had tried an onside kick after its previous two scores as well, but this was the only one that worked.
“They timed it perfect,” Meyer said. “That kid has a heck of an onside kick, it gets there at the same time as his kids. Whether you’re ready for it, whether you’ve got your best athletes there or not, that’s hard to do, especially on a stage like this, in that moment. That is hard on anybody, even the pros.”
The Clippers took over at their 45 with 32 ticks on the clock. Before long they were at the 21.
Meyers looked to pass, scrambled and then ran 21 yards for the touchdown with five seconds remaining.
“It was a pass play, trying to get it to Abe (Dykstra),” Meyers said. “The middle opened up, and I just took off.”
He said he was just hoping to get out of bounds, with the clock running down, but he was able to get in the end zone.
“We thought we could keep them out for two more plays,” Meyer, the Bulldogs’ coach, said. “We lost contain somewhere there around the edge.”
The unfathomable score: 30-26 after the conversion.
Martin lost a lot of seniors from last year, including three all-staters. The Clippers didn’t win their conference, and they fell to 2-2 early in the year with losses to Bridgman and Gobles. They haven’t lost since, though, winning nine straight games with a young team.
“It’s nice to be able to leave a legacy,” said Harris, a senior. “Last year, we had a pretty stacked group of guys. We had three of our star players injured this season, it wasn’t looking good, 2-2, then we won, what, nine, eight straight? … It feels really good.”
Meyers, who threw for 216 yards and ran for 142 on Saturday, filled in for one of those all-state graduates quite well, J.R. Hildebrand.
“He’s a damn good football player,” Blauvelt said of Meyers. “And he’s grown a bunch. Halfway through the year, he started moving in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield. You saw it today, right, he kept his eyes downfield.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Inland Lakes scored twice during the second quarter. The Bulldogs took over for the final drive of the half at their own 12 with 3:05 remaining. They went for it on 4th-and-6 at their own 31 and again on 4th-and-6 at the 47. They converted both and were rewarded with a touchdown as time expired. Despite being pressured, Fenstermaker hit Jacob Willey in the corner of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass that put Inland Lakes up 14-0 at the half.
Meyer said his team punted once this year and once last year.
“We don’t put a ton of time into punting,” he said. “So when the best we can do is maybe get off a 25-yard punt and they return it 10 yards before we cover it, we figured that was only 15 yards of field position anyway, so we might as well give ourselves a shot. It was playing the odds. Maybe people don’t like that logic, but we like to play aggressively. We like to see what we can do.”
They built the lead to 20-0 late in the third quarter as Martin came up empty on all four of its drives, even though every one of them got into the red zone.
“It was very frustrating,” Blauvelt said. “We saw on film, they stopped Pickford (in the Semifinal) inside the red zone multiple times, they tightened up when they got in there. We shot ourselves in the foot in the first half. But we moved the ball consistently, but yeah, that was a little frustrating. We had some good drives, and we just couldn’t punch them in.”
It just wasn’t as frustrating as the finish was for the Bulldogs.
Inland Lakes senior Payton Teuthorn said getting to this point was what they wanted since youth football.
“We made it here. We just couldn’t finish,” he said.
PHOTOS (Top) Martin players celebrate with their fans Saturday the program’s second-straight 8-Player Division 1 championship at Superior Dome. (Middle) Martin quarterback Gavin Meyers charges toward the end zone on the way to scoring the game-winning touchdown. (Below) Inland Lakes’ Andre Bradford (20) pulls in a catch as two Martin defenders converge including Bryer Watson (2). (Click for more photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)