By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The Pickford football team has relished the opportunity to learn the last two seasons.
The Panthers’ 2016 run ended in the 8-Player Semifinals with a loss to eventual repeat champion Powers North Central. Last season, Pickford didn’t lose a game until the 8-Player Division 2 Semifinals – when it fell to eventual champion Crystal Falls Forest Park by a mere two points.
“There was a point in (last year’s) game where if we could’ve gotten the ball back, we had a chance to win that game,” Pickford coach Josh Rader said. “We know sometime during the season, it’s going to be on the line, and we’re doing our best to prepare for that moment. We put ourselves in different situations in practice. We practice those specific moments … that (are) going to propel you to the next level.”
All signs point to the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for September being well on its way.
After finishing 11-1 a year ago, Pickford is off to a 7-0 start this fall. A 38-20 Week 3 win over Forest Park was the only game where Pickford didn’t score at least 52 points. And the defense has given up 69 points total.
Pickford’s program is the reason the MHSAA introduced 8-player football playoffs in 2011. The school, located on the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula about 25 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, has roughly 130 students. The varsity has 14 players – with only two seniors and just one sophomore.
Three juniors were on varsity for all of last season, and two more played several games with the top team. “The last few years we’ve had a good group of guys; they work together, they trust each other and they’re just playing good football because of that,” Rader said. “They build on each other.”
Five players have run for at least three touchdowns this season, with junior running back Stephen LaMothe finding the end zone a team-high 10 times to go with 539 yards on the ground – at 10.2 per carry. Junior Matthew Bush has run for a team-high 613 yards – at 9.6 yards per attempt.
But making this Pickford team even more dangerous is junior quarterback Jimmy Storey, a threat both on the ground and through the air. He also averages 10 yards per carry, with 414 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. He’s completed 63 percent of his pass attempts for 1,043 yards and 23 scores – without an interception. Junior Nicholas Edington is his leading receiver with 18 catches for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns.
And then there’s the defense. Pickford has seven interceptions and seven fumble recoveries – an average of two takeaways per game. Junior Isaiah May has a team-high 61 tackles, and junior Sam Burton has eight sacks. Bush is the team’s second-leading tackler.
How do the Panthers’ pull this off with just 14 players? They stress daily improvements in practice and bringing physicality against opponents. A few defensive stops followed by quick scores, and Pickford is rolling.
Rader joined the staff in 2003 as defensive coordinator and took over as head coach a year later. The Panthers made the 11-player playoffs in eight of 12 seasons with him on staff or leading it, and are 34-7 in 8-player since making the switch in 2015.
But they’re hoping for more this fall. Pickford is prepping for that next step after building up the schedule with seven 2017 playoff teams. After so much success, the Panthers are getting everyone’s best shot, all the saved-up trick plays – and Rader likes that as well. All of it helps his team prepare for next month.
And the community is excited to support another run. Pickford’s best-known sports legend is a boys track & field program that won 27 straight Upper Peninsula Finals from 1952-78. The football program has made four MHSAA Semifinals total over the years and is eyeing a possible championship game trip to Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.
“We tried to step that (schedule) up to prepare for those playoff moments and those tough type of games,” Rader said. “(It’s) ‘Let's play this as a playoff game’ – so when we are in the playoffs, hopefully we’ll be battle tested.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19
August: Northville girls golf – Read
PHOTOS: (Top) Pickford quarterback Jimmy Storey breaks free during his team’s Week 6 win over Stephenson. (Middle) Panthers senior Mitchell Miller leads the team onto the field this season. (Photos courtesy of the Pickford football program.)
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.)