By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
OTTAWA LAKE – For many smaller Class C football teams, losing four starters to injuries during the first six weeks of the season would be devastating.
In Ottawa Lake, however, probably only those close to the Whiteford football program have noticed.
Despite the injury bug, the Bobcats are rolling like never before in school history. They are 6-0, averaging 53 points per game and sit alone atop the Tri-County Conference. The key is an unusual amount of depth – and a 28-player roster with 14 seniors and 14 juniors.
“Some of it has to do with a couple of innate classes, with more than the usual amount of kids,” sixth-year Bobcats coach Jason Mensing said. “There’s always an ebb and flow from one grade to the next. But, what we are experiencing is different. In Hunter Lake, not only did we lose a running back, but he was also a cornerback, kick returner and punt returner. And, Alex (Kohler) is a second-year starting guard, but is also our punter and he kicked off.”
Typically, only two or three players start on both sides of the ball for the Bobcats – a rare occurrence for a team has played in the Division 8 playoffs each of the past four seasons (they were in Division 7 in 2012).
“We try and coach every kid the same,” Mensing said. “That’s a very important piece. We really try and develop every player into a starting player. The ultimate goal is to make sure every kid gets on the field.”
Part of the reason the Bobcats have developed such depth is their deep playoff runs the past couple of seasons. The 2015 team advanced to the Division 8 Semifinals, and last year the Bobcats played in the championship game at Ford Field against Muskegon Catholic Central. Since Mensing arrived at Whiteford, he has invited every junior varsity player to practice with the varsity for all of the playoff weeks.
“Those playoff runs have allowed our JV players a ton of extra practice over the past couple of seasons,” Mensing said. “If you think about that, it’s another season and then some. That makes a really big difference, especially the first two weeks or so of the next season. The players come in and already know what to expect, and they know the routine and the pace. They are playing at a higher level at an earlier time.”
Mensing and his staff of 10 varsity coaches work with grades 9-12 in practice on a daily basis.
“That’s a critical piece of coaching – every kid is receiving the same instruction,” he said.
A Tecumseh graduate and former Adrian College football player, Mensing is 53-13 since becoming head coach of the Bobcats, giving him the highest winning percentage of any coach in school history. The program has never been stronger – six straight playoff appearances, a 9-0 regular season last year and two consecutive 9-0 seasons by the JV team. He said he developed his coaching style from playing small college football.
“My background is small college football,” he said. “It always seemed to me to be the best way to operate that I know.”
Whiteford’s offense has rushed for more than 2,200 yards heading into Friday’s game against Sand Creek – an average of about 10 yards a carry. Many of those yards are gained behind 6-foot-5, 280-pound all-state tackle Lucas Tesznar. Jacob Lewis, Jordan Book and Jaret Atherton all are starting for a second year on the offensive line. There are five solid backups in the mix, too, who have received plenty of playing time even though Whiteford has had a running clock at some point in each of its six games.
“At the line of scrimmage we have guys who can come in and play that would start in just about any other year,” Mensing said.
Whiteford lost two 1,000-yard running backs to graduation after last season, but have found several capable replacements in six juniors: Logan Murphy (823 yards on just 61 carries), Zach Bertz (266 yards and 10 touchdowns), Nathan Bauman (258 yards), Ty Eitniear (188 yards) and Lake (148 yards in three games). Bradyn Clark-Gilmore started the season at running back and had a 100-yard game but shifted to tight end and is now the leading receiver on the team (280 yards on 11 receptions).
Thomas Eitniear is the Bobcats’ quarterback. As the starting signal-caller, Eitniear is 29-4, already setting a record for most starts and wins by a Whiteford QB. He holds the school record for career passing touchdowns and is nearing the school record for career passing yards. This season he has 567 yards passing and 409 yards rushing. He’s committed to play baseball at the University of Toledo next year.
“We’ve got a Division I athlete playing quarterback,” Mensing said. “He is a difference-maker. I can’t tell you how many drives or even games have changed over the last three years because of him making a big play.”
Inside linebacker Eli Shelton, safety Abba Risley, cornerback Ty Eitniear (three interceptions) and end Ethan Inman have been standouts on defense. Jack Garrison stepped up when Lake was injured and had several big games. One of the few two-way starters, Matthew Taylor, has been solid all season.
Mensing said players like Thomas Eitniear and Murphy won’t put up gaudy numbers because of the system they are in, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.
“It’s not about any one individual effort,” he said. “It’s about a collective group. That’s what we’ve always been about.”
Whiteford is seeking to win back-to-back league championships for the first time in more than 50 years, the last time when it was a member of the River Raisin Conference. They have games remaining against Sand Creek (3-3), Clinton (4-2) and Britton Deerfield (1-5) on the regular-season schedule. Then the playoffs begin. Lake and Kohler are expected back before the end of the season to help solidify the depth.
“We still have room to show improvement from week to week,” Mensing said. “As long as we continue to improve, and if we can continue to get better over the next three weeks, it will determine where we will end up on the season.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ottawa Lake Whiteford’s Eli Shelton, standing for the national anthem, is one of the defense’s standouts this fall. (Middle) Quarterback Thomas Eitniear takes off around a corner during his third season as a starter. (Below) From left: Jacob Lewis, Lucas Tesznar and coach Jason Mensing confer on the sideline. (Top and middle photos by Carl Hayes, below photo by Doug Donnelly.)
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.)