Today’s blog was written by MHSAA Second Half Editor Geoff Kimmerly
The demise of Michigan high school football has been greatly exaggerated – or, at least, recently misreported by one of the U.S.’s most recognizable newspapers that noted as part of a larger story on football decline that Michigan has seen a “net loss of 57 teams in the past five years.”
It’s easy to understand how this error took place – especially when a reporter is not familiar with the football landscape in our state – but that doesn’t make this statement any less misleading, or harmful considering the story since has been picked up by multiple large news organizations. So let’s quickly clear up the misinterpreted information:
The data that led to this error came from an annual participation report released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Every spring, state associations (like the MHSAA) from every state and Washington, D.C., tally up how many of their member schools have a sport and how many athletes play it.
For 2016-17, the MHSAA submitted to the NFHS a total of 580 schools with 11-player football – that number actually includes all schools that reported having at least one football player, including primary and secondary schools in co-ops. And yes, that 580 is 57 fewer than the 637 11-player schools the MHSAA submitted for 2012-13.
But saying Michigan has lost 57 football programs misses out on something incredibly significant – the MHSAA also submitted 60 schools with 8-player football last year, up from 16 in 2012-13, making that net decrease in football schools over five years 13 – far fewer than 57.
And with a few more brush strokes, the picture of football in our state actually shows a healthy landscape:
The 640 schools in Michigan with at least one football player for 2016-17, 11 and 8-player combined, is actually eight more than we reported to the NFHS four years ago and 10 more than three years ago.
A better picture of Michigan’s football consistency is shown by how many varsity programs are taking the field. This fall, that number is 616 – 555 11-player varsities and 61 8-player – and we also had 616 for most of the 2016 season, 616 in 2015 and 615 in 2014.
We’ve had programs bring back varsity teams this year, and in one case a school has a team on its own for the first time. Benzonia Benzie Central and Suttons Bay were unable to field varsities in 2016, but Benzie Central is back playing 11-player and Suttons Bay is back with an 8-player team. Brimley, an 8-player school going back to 2010, also is fielding a team again after being unable to do so last year. Mount Clemens played only two varsity games in 2016 and forfeited a third, but has seven scheduled for this fall and lost close in its opener last week. And Bear Lake, previously a secondary school in a co-op program, now has a team all its own for the first time and is playing at the 8-player level.
Yes, there has been a decrease in Michigan high school football participation when it comes to the number of players – for reasons we discuss frequently, including more extracurricular/entertainment options than ever for students, more who are specializing in other sports and safety fears that often are misplaced. But we’ve also seen a three percent drop in enrollment at MHSAA member schools over the last five years. And despite that trend, Michigan again had the sixth-highest 11-player football participation in the nation in 2016-17 (and seventh-highest in 8-player) while ranking 10th nationally in number of residents of high school age.
So yes, while a nine percent drop in the number of football players over the last five years in Michigan clearly is troubling, and something we’re working with the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association to reverse, let’s also put those numbers in perspective. At medium-sized to bigger schools, it could mean a roster of 40 might have only 36 players. A roster of 20 at an 8-player school might go down to 18. Neither would signal the need to eliminate a football program.
And that move by so many schools to 8-player? It definitely started as a way for low-participation programs to keep football (and has worked for most of them). While that still may be the driving force as schools move from 11 to 8, others have made the switch because most of their former opponents did and joining them makes scheduling easier and travel shorter. Michigan has a multitude of small towns, and you’ll find most of these 8-player programs in pockets in the thumb, southwest or northern Lower Peninsula, or Upper Peninsula. And keep in mind, only Class D teams remain eligible for the 8-player playoffs – and only two of 61 teams playing 8-player this fall are larger than Class D and its enrollment limit of 203 students for 2017-18.
The story behind “a decrease of 57 schools” clearly is a little complex to explain and explain away, but it’s necessary to do so.
Yes, Michigan’s total number of football players is down a few percent. But the sport’s prominence and importance in our schools and communities remains high.
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.)