By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – When school ended in early June, Dave Howes took a vacation trip to Florida and began thinking about his upcoming fourth season as junior varsity football coach at Escanaba High School.
Within a month he had become the school's varsity head coach, a position he had never thought about taking on.
"To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a head football coach," Howes said in the Eskymos’ lockerroom before the start of a recent practice. "It just kind of fell in my lap."
Escanaba had a 10-17 record over the last three seasons under previous coach Jim Hansen, who was dismissed in June, but opened this fall with a 21-7 win over Alpena on Thursday. The Eskymos travel to Petoskey on Friday.
When Howes was contacted about moving up from the jayvees, he said, "I had to make up my mind. Do I want it? It happened real fast. I wasn't expecting it. It just happened."
He was encouraged to apply by several people, including an Escanaba High School administrator, and was given the blessing of his wife, Holly, to pursue the position. He is the second coach in four years to direct the Eskymos, who during the previous 50 years had just two head coaches, Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn.
When Howes first joined the Eskymos’ coaching staff in 2005, he said Flynn asked if he ever wanted to become the school's head coach. "I said, I don't know," said Howes. "I didn't envision it. Now I'm more than happy."
Howes said he has received excellent support from family, friends, players, coaches and the community during the short time he has been in charge.
"I want our fans to know that our kids are going to be competitive, and they are going to work hard. They will see there will be an edge about them," he said.
About 100 students came out for the three football levels, with 48 on varsity. Howes didn't have any preseason contact until after July 4, about a month behind the normal period. A big plus in the transition was all the previous assistant coaches stuck with the program, and they have all moved up a level in the process.
"They have all the kids they had in previous years, and we're running the same system," Howes said. "It has been an easy transition. Knowing the kids and knowing the coaches was easy. We had the same kids, the same coaches, the same philosophies. It's made practice easier."
Athletic director Nick Nolde brought the coaches and players together and provided the introductions, which weren't really necessary because of the carry over. "It's been smooth sailing ever since," said Howes of the best-case scenario coming together.
Nolde said given the way "everything went down, it has been a seamless transition. He is familiar with the kids, and he is familiar with the program."
Howes is a native of neighboring Gladstone, graduating in 1993 and playing against Escanaba teams in football, basketball and baseball. "It's weird. As a kid, I hated Escanaba with a passion. Now, here I am," said Howes, whose older brother Dave is an assistant varsity coach with former Escanaba player Don Koish and former Gladstone athlete Jason Micheau.
"It is so funny how things happen," said Howes, who also coached subvarsity football in Gladstone and Beal City following his 1998 graduation from Northern Michigan University and before coming to Escanaba in 2005.
He does not feel any pressure taking over the tradition-laden, highly-respected program spotlighted by the MHSAA Class A championship in 1981 and 1979 runner-up finish.
"To me, it is just a game and we're going to be competitive and try our hardest," Howes said. "We are moving forward. Every day we come in here and see the (old) pictures. It is a great tradition with great pride. But the focus is now. Everything is about the present."
He already has noticed the difference of being in charge of the whole program, from dealing with the news media to handling financial situations and MHSAA rules and regulations. "There is a lot more on my plate. Instead of being in charge of 30 kids, you are the boss of the whole program grades 7-12," he said.
He has also installed his own touch, starting with practice sessions. "The last couple of years we have had super-paced practices. This year we're doing more teaching in our practices," he said. "We are keeping it as simple as possible and putting kids in position to succeed. We're getting more done in a shorter amount of time."
He is not worried about matching X's and O's against such legendary Upper Peninsula coaches as Chris Hofer at Kingsford or Joe Noha from Menominee, nor is he concerned about the imprint made by Cvengros and Flynn, or even his high school coach, the highly-regarded John Mileski.
"I can't follow in their footsteps," he said. "They are irreplaceable. We've just got to move on."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba High School football coach Dave Howes makes a point to members of the Eskymos recently at Escanaba Athletic Field. Howes took over the tradition-laden program in July and is the second head coach in the past four years, after the late Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn served as the only head coaches during the previous 50 years. (Middle) Howes encourages his football team during a practice session.
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.)