By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – This week was the right time for Carter Thelen to pull out the film from sixth grade, to remember the start of this year’s seniors playing football together a third of their lifetimes ago.
“It was kinda emotional, because this was our last game playing with each other,” Thelen said Saturday after that final game was complete. “Just thinking back to when we kept blowing everybody out in sixth grade and seventh grade and eighth grade. Coach was saying how it was the last game for us seniors … (it was) emotionally sad, but physically it pushed me to go out and be better in practice and stay locked in and push everybody else.”
Every ounce of that focus and every ounce of that push was necessary Saturday as the Pirates faced Jackson Lumen Christi and its 35-game winning streak in the Division 7 Final at Ford Field.
The teams entered with five MHSAA Finals championship over the last three seasons between them, and P-W emerged with the sixth over four, coming out just ahead in a physical matchup 14-0 to claim its third Division 7 title in four years to go with those won in 2016 and 2017. Lumen Christi had won the last three Division 6 championships before moving into Division 7 for this playoffs as one of seven undefeated teams in that 32-team field to start the postseason.
Their matchup indeed was 48 minutes of tug of war. P-W gained 119 yards, and Lumen Christi had 109 as both averaged 2.3 per play. The Pirates (14-0) were held under 35 points for just the second time this season, to go with a 14-0 Week 1 victory over Friday’s Division 8 champion Reading. Lumen Christi hadn’t been shut out since a 2010 playoff loss.
“They’re the three-time defending Division 6 state champs, and they are obviously one of the storied programs in the state of Michigan,” P-W coach Jeremy Miller said. “And when you’re going up against them, you have to execute. So to do it against a quality opponent like that is obviously just a tremendous credit to our kids.”
P-W scored its first touchdown when senior Aaron Bearss pulled in a pass from senior Ethan Thelen with three seconds left in the first half after a Bearss interception gave the Pirates an opportunity at the Titans’ 40-yard line with 27 seconds remaining in the half.
After nearly 22 more minutes of back-and-forth, the Pirates locked up the title on Carter Thelen’s 16-yard scoring run with 2:16 to play, as he burst through the middle of the line and shucked two Lumen Christi defenders at the 1 before gliding into the end zone.
The Titans (12-1) reached P-W territory on three of their 10 possessions, but only inside the 35 once – and that drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt 10 seconds into the second quarter. The three straight Lumen championships saw at least one runner gain at least 200 yards (and in 2017 two did so). Senior Walker Plate entered Saturday averaging almost exactly 200 yards per game rushing this season, but was held to just 49 on 22 carries as the team rushed for only 80 total. Lumen also completed just 6-of-16 passes for 29 yards.
“They were really physical up front, and they played eight men in the box – but we’ve seen that all year long,” Titans coach Herb Brogan said. “We’ve been able to take advantage of what that gives you, and we couldn’t do that today.”
P-W senior lineman John Martin and Lumen senior defensive end Matt Saunders led their respective defenses with 11 tackles apiece. Lumen Christi had 12 tackles for loss, including five by junior Brody Dalton. Senior linebacker Grant Stump added eight more tackles for the Pirates.
Sophomore Tanner Wirth led P-W 63 yards rushing on 23 carries, pushing past 1,600 yards on the year as he stepped in for his senior brother Hunter, who missed the entire season after tearing a knee ligament during the summer. Ethan Thelen completed 5-of-11 passes for 52 yards and a score, two years after tearing a knee ligament as well in his final game sophomore year.
Carter Thelen said this year’s P-W team was defined by how it pushed the pile in short-yardage situations and others when a full team effort was necessary. How the Pirates emerged from those two potentially success-stopping injuries on the way to a second-straight perfect regular season, defeating two unbeaten teams on the way to Ford Field – reigning champion New Lothrop and Iron Mountain – and then winning one of the most power-packed Finals this decade only seemed to back up Thelen’s analogy.
“It’s every time we get in the moment,” Thelen said. “Everybody goes behind and tries to push the pile.
“We’re stronger than them and we’ve got more heart, and that pile just keeps going our way.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia’s Grant Stump (22) and Aaron Bearss celebrate during Saturday’s Division 7 Final. (Middle) Bearss locks in on what will be a second-quarter touchdown catch.
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.)