By Ryan Stieg
Special for Second Half
MARQUETTE – A year ago, the Pickford football team was left heartbroken at the Superior Dome as it fell in the 8-player Division 1 championship game.
On Saturday, the Panthers exited the stadium in jubilation as they finished the job this time, downing Portland St. Patrick 48-15 in the Division 2 Final.
Pickford used its large offensive line and talented rushing game to take over in the second quarter. From then on, the Panthers never looked back as they outgained the Shamrocks 285-18 on the ground and 437-143 in total yards on the way to their first title in the sport.
“Our staple for the whole year has been our offensive line, and we knew if we stuck with it and do what we did best, we’d force them to do what they didn’t want to do,” Pickford head coach Josh Rader said. “We controlled the line of scrimmage, I think, on both sides of the ball. And when you’re able to do that, you’re going to win the majority of the games.
“We came up short last year and after that game, you get that empty feeling in your stomach. A lot of them were juniors, and we only had two seniors on the team last year. So they had a goal to get back here to be able to play in this game and win it. So we had some unfinished business, and we found a way to come back here and finish it.”
Pickford quarterback Jimmy Storey agreed with his coach, saying that a championship was on the team’s mind from the start of the season, but took a lot of work.
“It’s all those extra reps,” he said. “Coming out the first day of practice, we set our goals and said we want a state championship this year. We’ve been working toward that in every practice, every game and every play. We just came out wanting it.”
While Pickford (12-1) looked sharp from start to finish on Dome’s turf, the stadium continues to be an unlucky place for the Shamrocks as two years ago they were run over by Crystal Falls Forest Park. This time against the Panthers, the Shamrocks were hit hard early and struggled to get anything going offensively after the first quarter.
“We had some trouble just slowing them down,” St. Patrick head coach Patrick Russman said. “They are great up front, and we knew that. We needed a couple big plays here or there to keep us going along with it. We had a couple chances in there in the passing game. Some we made, and some we didn’t. We just needed a few more points on the board to make it interesting. I credit the kids, and I credit their kids. Credit our kids for fighting all the way through. Two really good football teams on the field today.
“Statistically, if you looked at it, we probably shouldn’t be here. Our kids are such great football players that it’s fun to watch them play week-in and week-out. Just the time and heart they put into it and how they treat other people, those are the great things we get out of this group.”
The first quarter started off pretty even. After forcing a St. Patrick punt, Pickford scored on its opening possession. A couple of first-down runs by Storey got the ball up to the Shamrocks’ 31-yard line before Matt Bush busted up the middle for a touchdown. Storey ran in the 2-point conversion, and the Panthers led 8-0.
St. Patrick (12-1) answered. A long kickoff return from John Schneider brought the ball to the Pickford 7, and a couple of plays later Ned Smith plunged into the end zone on a one-yard run. The Shamrocks got the conversion on a pass from Connor Cross to Tyler Coyne, and the game was tied at 8-8 going into the second quarter.
From that point on, it was almost all Panthers. On the ensuing possession, Pickford quickly marched downfield. On 4th down on the St. Patrick 25, Nick Edington made a nice overhead catch in the end zone. Stephen Lamothe got the conversion for the Panthers to give them a 16-8 lead.
After almost picking off a Shamrocks pass, the Panthers scored again on their next offensive chance, first using their running game to get into St. Patrick territory. Storey capped off the drive with his first rushing touchdown, a two-yard run, and he then hooked up with Micah Bailey for the conversion. Pickford now held a 24-8 advantage with 5:09 left in the second quarter.
The Panthers added one more touchdown before the half, another two-yard run from Storey, and picked up the conversion. St. Patrick had a chance to go into the break with a little momentum as a 39-yard pass from Cross to Schneider took the team to the Pickford 21. But the Shamrocks couldn’t capitalize.
Things got worse for St. Patrick during the second half. Pickford used a combination of running and passing to get the ball to the Shamrocks’ 3, and Storey got his third touchdown run of the game. The Panthers got the conversion on a pass to Luke Batho and led 40-8 with 8:44 left in the third quarter. Pickford locked down the win with 5:20 left when Storey found Batho down the Shamrocks’ sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. The conversion put Pickford up 48-8.
St. Patrick did get on the board one more time as Cross hit Coyne over the middle with a 76-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds remaining.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pickford celebrates its first football championship Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Panthers’ Matt Bush (32) breaks into the open while Portland St. Patrick defenders chase. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)