PERRY – Swirling around in the back of his mind, Tanner Orweller sees what the most historic moment in Perry football history will look like.
The Ramblers, after coming so close so many seasons before, will make the playoffs for the first time. The entire town will turn out for the game – so many fans the bleachers won’t hold them all.
A motivating memory also replays frequently: Orweller, playing safety last fall as a sophomore on the varsity, biting on a pitch to the halfback against Maple Valley although his responsibility was to cover a receiver heading downfield.
That halfback threw a pass to the uncovered receiver, who ended up on the ground just short of the goalline. The Lions went on to defeat Perry by a point – 28-27 – and two weeks later the Rambers ended the season 5-4 and just short again of that elusive postseason berth.
“I know championships are not made in a matter of a year, or two years even,” said Orweller, also a Regional-qualifying wrestler during the winter. “You’ve got to train your whole life in order to be the best at what you do.
“There’s going to be failure in what you do, and you’ve got to know it’s not, ‘Oh no, I’m done.’ It’s, ‘Look, I’ve learned something from this. I know what I can do better. I’m going to practice those things I did wrong and make those mistakes go away so I can succeed next year.’”
Orweller and 19 teammates have been training most of their lives for the opportunity that began again Monday all over the state with the first practices of the 2017 football season.
Not counting schools playing varsity football for the first time this fall, there are 17 programs statewide that have never made the MHSAA Playoffs.
Of those 17, nine schools have existed since at least 1975, the first year football playoffs were conducted by the MHSAA.
And of those nine, Perry is one – and can make a great argument that none of the other 16 has come closer to earning another game more often.
From 1975-98, when playoff qualifiers were determined regionally by playoff-point average (based on success and strength of schedule), Perry enjoyed eight seasons of at least six wins – which would have been plenty under the current playoff format, which set an automatic qualifier at six victories when the 11-player field was expanded to 256 teams in 1999. The Ramblers had at least six wins four straight seasons from 1983-86, finishing the regular season 9-0 in 1984 but getting left out of the postseason. They then went 7-2 three times over four seasons from 1990-93, but couldn’t break through.
Perry entered the 2006 regular-season finale 5-3 and needing a win over Williamston to qualify for the first time – but lost 14-0. And then came last season and another 5-4 finish, the Ramblers’ best since that just-miss season a decade before but with a five-point loss to eventual Greater Lansing Activities Conference champion Lake Odessa Lakewood in Week 3 and then the one-point heartbreaker against the Lions a month later.
Telling that senior class that it wouldn’t have enough playoff points to make history was painful for then second-year coach Jeff Bott. And it was followed by a long offseason.
But Bott also saw the roots of a winner sinking in. An assistant at Perry for two years before taking over the program in 2015, Bott grew up in Haslett and never made the playoffs as a player – but was on the coaching staff as the program made the playoffs 12 times over 17 years with two trips to the MHSAA Finals.
He’s seen what it takes to become an annual playoff team. And he’s seen those steps taken, especially from an offseason training point of view, as the Ramblers have climbed back into the conversation.
“They playoffs weren’t something we talked about until we earned (it). I feel last year we earned the right to talk about it,” Bott said. “We aren’t there yet. But now, it’s time to finish. We just have to finish this year.”
Those finishing will mostly be new players. The roster has three seniors plus Orweller and two more juniors who were sophomores on varsity last season. The rest of their teammates are new to the top level.
But the other 13 juniors played together on junior varsity and led a team that finished 7-2, the latest strong run for a class that Orweller recalled finishing 6-1 in fourth grade – when he started having those playoff dreams for the first time.
If the Ramblers succeed in making the playoffs this season or next (or both), junior Drew Crim would be the first of his family including his dad Todd (a 1990 grad) and two uncles who preceded him to play in the postseason in a Perry uniform.
He’s seen success from a distance, cheering on cousin D.J. Zezula, who quarterbacked Clarkston to Division 1 titles in 2013 and 2014 before moving on to Wayne State University. Zezula has imparted on his cousin the importance of keeping his teammates working together and making sure they are accountable to each other on the field and off. Drew was another of the then-sophomores who came up to varsity in 2016. And Todd has pumped up his son’s confidence after watching he and his classmates grow up together.
“He says this year will be the greatest of probably all. We have a very athletic group of kids, and he thinks we will do great things – Yes, I agree,” Drew Crim said.
“I work with these guys, and I know their tenacity and drive to do better things.”
Bott, who teaches in Haslett and also coaches basketball at Perry, recalled how the Ramblers used to be known for having some sizable guys, but this year’s team has more athletes. He made a point when taking over the program to push for the addition of local Spartan Performance, which trains the team year-round with a focus on improving as a complete athlete instead of just hitting the weights.
That offseason dedication and continued improvement in a wide-open spread attack all contribute to Perry looking the part of a program on the rise.
Now the Ramblers hope to look the part of playoff team.
“This town loves football. Every Friday night there are 2,000 people here, three deep on the fence,” he said. “(Our players) are focused on giving something back here – for us, for them, but for this town. This program has been looked down on at times, and it hasn’t always been successful, but there have been great athletes and teams that came through in the 90s and we’re trying to get back to where it was.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me in town that this is the way it used to look.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Perry linemen work through a defensive drill during Monday's opening practice. (Middle) Ramblers coach Jeff Bott addresses his varsity and junior varsity players before those first drills of the 2017 season.
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.)