By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
POWERS – Fielding Yost and his "Point-A-Minute" University of Michigan football powerhouse of more than a century ago had nothing on the supersonic Jets of Powers North Central.
In their first season of 8-player football, the Menominee County team is averaging a meteoric 73.6 points a game during a 5-0 start. The Jets, who play Eben Junction Superior Central on Saturday, have outscored their opponents 368-70.
This team is playing at a level not seen in Powers since, well, last March when the boys basketball team won the Class D championship with a 27-0 record. Six members of that team, led by all-state basketball guard and quarterback Jason Whitens, play football.
"When you are winning and you are playing good, it is always fun," said Whitens, a junior who was a wide receiver/defensive back on last season's 3-5 team. "When you come to practice, it is nice to know what it feels like (to win)."
In both sports, Whitens has the ability to adjust and adapt as the game situation dictates. "It is nice to know you can change what you want and get the best possible result," he said.
Coach Kevin Bellefeuil, in his 11th season during a tenure that includes four winning seasons and one postseason victory, said the transition from 11-player to 8 has been seamless and timely.
The Jets have been battling small football turnouts for years, with as few as 13 players available a few seasons ago. This year there are 18 players, which enables full-scale scrimmages under the 8-player version.
"In reality, we're just this little school of 120 kids," Bellefeuil said, noting more students came out for football this season with the change to the 8-player game. The shift also allowed the Jets to retain a junior varsity program, which is playing seven games under the 11-player format and the final two in the 8-player version.
Football began in 1972 at North Central, and the program has just 23 winning seasons. Of those, only nine ended with two or fewer losses, including a 9-0 run in 1980.
Athletic director Joe Pontbriand said, "there were two keys" to installing the 8-player game: number of participants and maintaining a jayvee program. "I think the process is working," he said.
"It becomes unhealthy," Pontbriand said of the injury factor caused in part by fatigue that occurs with small numbers of athletes trying to play 11-player football. "It is not all about winning. Eleven-man with no numbers means a long season."
Bellefeuil said the jayvees haven't played more than three games in any of the past five years, noting several players have been elevated to varsity to replace injured players.
The Jets use basically the same offense this season. Rob Granquist, now the starting quarterback for Concordia University in Chicago, earned all-Upper Peninsula Class D honors last season. Whitens this season has completed 42 of 53 passes for 939 yards and 17 touchdowns while directing a ground attack that has gained 1,297 yards in 129 attempts for a whopping 9.88 average.
The Jets have scored on every offensive possession in the first half this season, a staggering statistic. "The first half of a game we're pretty much 50-50 (run-pass)," said Bellefeuil, noting it is run-oriented in the running clock second half.
Bellefeuil, who calls the plays, indicated the Jets likely would be using more no-huddle offense this season to take advantage of their speed and overall athleticism. He said only five players would be considered linemen.
"We run the same things we have done before," said Bellefeuil. "We play the pistol, shotgun offense. It is a lot of fun calling plays. Having the kind of athletes we have, we can move in-and-out and out-and-in, whatever we want.
"We just dropped the tackles and the slot receiver for eight-man. It has not been different from what we did already. It has not been much of a transition."
Whitens said "we're having a lot of fun. We are all enjoying it."
Senior captain and tight end Brett Baird, who only plays football, said he enjoys the 8-player game more. "Once you get through the first two weeks and know the plays and how everything works, it is just football."
He said the 11-player game is harder because "there are a lot more linemen and there are bigger guys. The eight-man game has more (playing) room. There are strengths and weaknesses both ways. Football is football; it doesn't matter."
The 8-player game is a better fit for the Jets because now they are playing comparable-sized teams and schools. Under the 11-player version the Class D school had games against such Class C opponents as Norway, Manistique, Munising and Newberry.
The change has also been beneficial for the students. Bellefeuil said Morgan Cox, a tight end-defensive end who also plays basketball, has embraced the new format and gained confidence and maturity this year after the MHSAA title run in basketball. "Now he is one of the guys out in front for the drills. He is definitely a leader," said Bellefeuil.
"We talked about going eight-man for a couple of years," he added, noting now the Jets do not have to elevate freshmen or sophomores to the varsity. "You are asking 14-15 year old kids to tackle 18-19 year old kids. They were not ready for that, and it is dangerous."
He said practice does not "seem like drudgery to them" under 8-player football. "They like playing the football brand of basketball they play because it is familiar to them," noting the fast-break basketball style and up-tempo football approach.
Having more depth allows the Jets to have fresh players available for more plays, which also fits the up-tempo style. "Now we get to play all of our kids and we wear teams out, like teams used to wear us out," said Bellefeuil. "A lot of injuries happen when you are tired and fatigued."
Although the Jets are having success in their first season of 8-player, Pontbriand admits the change has not been totally accepted in the school district.
"Not everyone is buying in, but we have to do what is best for the kids," he said. "The varsity team has really bought in."
The carryover from the phenomenal basketball season has also been important. "Carrying that attitude and enthusiasm over to the grass sport can be a deadly combination," Pontbriand said. "Those six kids (from basketball) are born leaders, and the other kids who sit in the front row cheering section now get to be part of that on the front line.
"It definitely sets a tone" in the classroom and community, he said of that success to start the school year. "It builds confidence and gives the kids a sense of entitlement and a chance to succeed. If you're the best on the field, you want to be the best in the classroom."
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) Members of the North Central football team go through blocking and tackling drills at practice Wednesday in Powers. (Middle) North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil indicates a pass route he wants his receivers to take. (Below) Like North Central's helmets indicate, the Jets are flying high in their first season of 8-player, off to a 5-0 start while averaging 73.6 points a game. (Photos by Denny Grall.)
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.)