By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Matt Stapleton jokes when he talks about his 19-year run as the Frankfort football coach.
“If you ask how many games we’ve won while I’ve been here, the answer would be, ‘Not enough,’” he quipped. “And if you ask how many we’ve lost, it would be “Too many.’”
Well, nobody is asking that second question, particularly this season. Frankfort heads into tonight’s MHSAA Division 8 playoffs with a perfect 9-0 record. The Panthers are one of two unbeaten in the northern Lower Peninsula. Traverse City St. Francis is the other.
That should come as no surprise to those who follow football in the north. The two schools are the winningest programs, percentage-wise, in the area. St. Francis ranks seventh in the state with a winning percentage of 76.8 percent since the school started playing football in 1951. Frankfort ranks 24th with a 71.4 winning percentage since 1950.
St. Francis, which has won six MHSAA championships, just put together back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons for the second time in school history. The 1991-92 teams also accomplished the feat. Gladiators head coach Josh Sellers played on the 1991 team as did offensive line coach Aaron Biggar and offensive coordinator Scott Doriot, who was also the quarterback on the 1992 Class C title squad.
“After (last Friday’s win) I told the team, ‘Hey, welcome to the club, guys,” Sellers said.
“They took it in stride, but they should be happy and excited about it,” Doriot added. “It’s super special, a heck of an accomplishment.”
Frankfort, meanwhile, completed its first 9-0 regular season since 2004.
Now the two programs are back in familiar territory – the playoffs. St. Francis, which hosts Harbor Springs on Saturday in a Division 7 contest, is in the postseason for the 30th time since 1983. During one stretch, the Gladiators, who have reached the MHSAA Finals nine times, qualified 22 years in a row. Frankfort, which hosts Evart tonight, is in the playoffs for the 28th time in the last 32 years. The Panthers own two MHSAA crowns, and during one six-year stretch played for the title five times.
Maintaining that tradition is a powerful motivator at the two schools.
“It’s a ‘your turn’ mentality,” Stapleton said. “Each team has its own identity, but the goals remain the same. For this team, it’s our turn, our opportunity.”
The same holds true at St. Francis.
“We want to follow in the footsteps of the guys before us,” senior back Gabe Callery, a water boy on some previous MHSAA championship teams, said. “That’s why we set our goals so high, because we’ve seen what those teams did. Now we want to taste it for our own.”
Like many, Callery had an older brother play in the Gladiators program. So he and his teammates know the bar is set high.
“It’s expectations,” Sellers said. “The coaches don’t have to push (playoffs) as one of our goals. It’s engrained in the kids, especially in the multi-generational families that have been a part of the program here.”
St. Francis and Frankfort made strong playoff runs last season. The Gladiators reached the Division 6 Semifinals before losing to eventual champion Ithaca. Frankfort fell to Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central in the Regional. St. Francis and Frankfort led those games in the second half.
Both teams have had just one tight game this season, and it came at home with Maple City Glen Lake. St. Francis downed the Lakers 21-13 in Week 2, while Frankfort rallied for a 26-21 triumph in Week 6. Those were the only two losses Glen Lake, a Division 6 qualifier, suffered during the regular season.
For the Panthers, that game was a defining moment. Not only did it put Frankfort in position to win the Northern Michigan Football League Leaders division, but it proved the Panthers could play with character and toughness under fire.
“That was an incredible (game), a good test for us to see if we could play at a high level for four quarters,” Stapleton said.
It helped to create an identity, he added.
“In those (pressure) situations, do you crumble or step up?” he said. “We stepped up pretty well.”
The players thought so, too.
“After that game, we thought, ‘Wow, we could make something happen this year,’” Panthers senior quarterback Tige Stockdale said.
“It meant a lot to us,” junior running back/linebacker Griffin Kelly added. “That was one of our goals – to beat Glen Lake. We worked hard and (played) with a lot of heart. We were the underdogs. I don’t think they expected it.”
St. Francis, meanwhile, cruised to the Northern Michigan Football League’s Legends crown, taking the title outright with a 22-0 win over Boyne City last Friday.
The Gladiators are an experienced team with 19 seniors on the roster.
“Experience is our strength,” Sellers said. “A good number of our seniors were on varsity as sophomores, especially up front on the offensive line. We have two juniors on the front seven, and one is a third-year varsity starter.”
St. Francis lost some key cogs to graduation in the backfield, but Callery returned for his third varsity season.
“He didn’t get a lot of touches last year,” Sellers said, “so he’s making up for lost time.”
Callery leads the ground game with 891 yards in eight games (one win was a forfeit), averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Tim Bott’s average is even better at 12.5 yards per carry. He’s picked up 401 yards on just 32 carries. Joey Muzljakovich has 390 rushing yards.
Sophomore quarterback Danny Passinault, who won a three-way battle for the job, oversees the offense, which averages 40 points per game. He’s completed 26 of 44 passes for 509 yards and 12 touchdowns. Chris Kolarevic (seven) and Michael Hegewald (four) have caught 11 of the 12 TD passes.
“We’ve been on an upward trend (offensively) the last four or five games, although I didn’t think we played our best against Boyne,” Doriot said.
Defensively, the Gladiators are limiting opponents to six points and just under 170 yards in total offense per contest. Ryan Lints, Kolarevic, Muzljakovich and Matt Biggar are the team’s leading tacklers. Lints, a lineman, has five sacks, Callery three interceptions.
The Gladiators are relatively healthy entering the postseason.
“We had a hold-your-breath moment against Cheboygan when we lost (back) Connor McGee,” Sellers said. “He dislocated his elbow, and we thought he would be out five to six weeks. But we found out today (Monday) he’s back. He missed two games.”
At Frankfort, Stapleton’s been pleased with his squad’s consistency in improving every week. He said that loss to Muskegon Catholic last November was a “springboard” for his players.
“Our kids were like, ‘We just went toe-to-toe with the team that won the last three (Division 8) state championships,’” Stapleton said. “Our kids felt disappointed because we could have won that game. We just didn’t finish.”
And that’s been the mindset this season.
Unlike St. Francis, the Panthers are not senior heavy. At times, Stapleton’s started four seniors on offense, four on defense.
Kelly is the sparkplug. He’s rushed for 1,250 yards on 132 carries (a 9.5-yard average) in eight games (one win was a forfeit).
“What’s nice about Grif is that he’s not consumed by statistics,” Stapleton said. “There’s only been three games he’s had carries in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a special player. He makes calling plays pretty easy. You want the ball in his hands. If he gets stuffed one play, he’s going to make something happen the next.”
Kelly runs behind a line that features 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior tackle Matt Stefanski, a “legitimate” college prospect, Stapleton said. The Panthers start three seniors and two juniors up front.
“I have a lot of trust in them,’ Kelly said of his line. “They’re outstanding.”
Stockdale is another weapon. He’s rushed for nearly 600 yards and passed for 300. He’s accounted for 15 touchdowns. Junior receiver Matt Loney is averaging 16 yards a reception for an offense that is scoring 43 points a game.
Kelly leads the defense with 85 tackles. Stefanski anchors the middle with seniors Colton Ryder and Wil Darling providing the pressure from their end positions and channeling plays to the interior.
Not unexpectedly, the future continues to look bright at St. Francis and Frankfort, too. The Gladiators junior varsity team finished unbeaten for the third year in a row, while the Frankfort JV team went 8-1, on the heels of two unbeaten campaigns.
For now, though, it’s a one-game-at-a-time mantra in the playoffs.
“We have one week guaranteed,” Frankfort’s Kelly said. “You never know if you’re going to have practice (the following) Monday.”
At St. Francis, Callery, for one, is savoring the final stretch of his high school career.
“Maybe it’s the weather getting cold, but it’s a different feel,” he said. “And if you don’t feel different during the playoffs, something’s wrong with you. It’s a special time.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Frankfort quarterback Tige Stockdale prepares to pitch during an Aug. 26 win over Manton. (Middle) St. Francis' Chris Kolarevic works upfield during his team's win over Cheboygan on Oct. 7. ( Below) Griffin Kelly (4) hurdles a would-be tackler for a touchdown against Central Lake on Sept. 2. (Photos by Amy Plumstead [Frankfort] and Leslie Julian [St. Francis].)
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.)