DETROIT – One big pass, a solid kicking game and a handful of fine defensive plays were all Grand Rapids Catholic Central needed to lock up the school’s first MHSAA football title since 2010.
Trailing much of the game, GRCC scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and then relied on its defense to complete a 10-7 victory over Detroit Country Day in the Division 4 Final on Friday at Ford Field.
The championship was the Cougars’ third. Country Day finished runner-up for the fourth time in 11 seasons.
And this loss must be one of the more painful.
Country Day’s defense was outstanding. But the one time the Yellowjackets were caught out of position, it cost them.
The Cougars (13-1) faced a 3rd-and-7 from the Country Day 44 when junior quarterback Jack Bowen got the protection he needed and completed a pass to Michael Brown, who ran a delayed crossing pattern. Brown caught the ball at the 30 and split the Country Day defenders to complete the 44-yard touchdown pass to give GRCC the 10-7 lead with 11:11 remaining.
“We couldn’t draw it up any better,” Brown said. “I had to shut my feet down and get the corner to bite. (Bowen) threw a perfect pass. I just caught it.
“We knew coming in both teams had good defenses. Our defensive line didn’t stop. We had to hang in there.”
No one could have guess just how good these defenses would play.
GRCC gained one first down – on the touchdown reception. That set an MHSAA Finals record for fewest first downs; the previous record was set during the first playoffs, in 1975, when Flint Holy Rosary was held to four first downs by Crystal Falls Forest Park in Class D.
The teams also set a Finals record for fewest combined total yards, combining for 173. Farmington Hills Harrison and Muskegon Catholic Central set the previous record of 196 in the 1981 Class B title game.
It was fitting that Country Day’s final offensive play resulted in a sack by Derek Saukas, one of 10 recorded by the Cougars for a total of 82 yards lost by the Yellowjackets.
It was that type of game. GRCC totaled 15 yards on its first three possessions of the second half, which all resulted in Josh Steffes punts.
Jaylen Mayfield’s fumble recovery at the Country Day 47 with one second left in the third quarter gave the Cougars the field position they were hoping for and set up the go-ahead drive.
GRCC coach Todd Kolster said his defense has played like that all season, and the play Bowen and Brown made also had a familiar ring to it.
“These guys are bigtime football players,” Kolster said. “They’re great students. They’re great people.
“Defensively this is what we’ve done all year. Our offense has been opportunistic. Our defense is as good as anyone’s. It’s something we believe in.”
With the defenses so dominant, it was apropos that Country Day’s touchdown was scored on a turnover.
Country Day (13-1) trailed 3-0, and GRCC faced a 3rd-and-8 from the Country Day 17 when linebacker Adam Fakih applied pressure on Bowen, hitting the quarterback as he tried to throw. The pass fluttered into the hands of Roy McCree IV, who raced down the right sideline for an 82-yard interception return touchdown and Country Day lead, 7-3, with 4:54 left in the half.
The Yellowjackets went to senior Steve Mann at quarterback on the next series and threatened to increase their lead. Mann took over for the starter, sophomore Jalen Graham, and moved his team from its 36 to the GRCC 25 – but a sack and a penalty pushed Country Day back, and a fourth down conversion attempt failed, ending the half.
GRCC scored with 1:18 left in the first quarter on Josh Steffes’ 31-yard field goal. That score was set up by Antonio Strong’s 58-yard punt return.
Country Day had 40 yards in the half; the Cougars did not gain a yard.
The loss was especially tough on Country Day coach Dan MacLean. He switched quarterbacks in an effort to add a spark.
Each quarterback was sacked five times. Graham was 3 of 5 passing for 18 yards, and Mann was 9 of 15 for 87 yards.
“We needed to,” MacLean said. “We had to get something going.
“Our defense has been a fantastic group. The (10) sacks, I have to see the film, but it wasn’t good.
“It’s very difficult to take right now.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) A collection of Grand Rapids Catholic Central defenders tackle Country Day’s Chris Bergin (5). (Middle) GRCC’s Antonio Strong follows a block during Friday’s Final.
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.)