By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – Peck’s players had started snapping at each other during their Week 6 Homecoming game against Kingston, getting on each other’s cases about missed tackles and other mistakes of the first two quarters.
The bickering became enough that coach Rob McDaniel decided that at halftime he and his players would have a talk. At least, that’s what he’s calling it now.
The message was clear. And McDaniel’s words that night proved true in Peck’s 67-32 victory over Rapid River in Friday’s MHSAA 8-Player Final at Greenville’s Legacy Field.
“We came out after halftime and put 52 on Kingston, and we haven’t looked back since,” McDaniel said. “I told them you can either bicker and your season will be done after nine games. Or, with the talent you have here, if you come together and be brothers on the field ... there aren’t any limits for you guys.”
“It was amazing,” Peck junior tight end Kyle Abrego added. “If you want to be state champions, you can’t fight against each other.”
Instead, the Pirates took the fight to the rest of their opponents this season, finishing a perfect 13-0 and with their first MHSAA title.
This was only the second season of 8-player football for Peck and its third under McDaniel. The Pirates had won only one game, by forfeit, the season before McDaniel took over – and then went 1-8 in his first season of 2011, their last before switching to 8-player.
“Our numbers were down, and (8-player) was huge for us,” McDaniel said. “We were able to build success. We had success last year putting in a new system. And then the seniors this year took over, and last summer they were the ones making the phone calls saying get in the weight room.”
Peck stood tall all season, outscoring its opponents on average 51-16. But Abrego and the Pirates’ passing game chose the Final to no longer be overshadowed by a running game that gained more than 4,200 yards this fall.
Quarterback Tristen Haener had thrown for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns this season entering Friday night, and then connected on 12 of 16 passes for 379 yards and seven touchdowns – including four that were caught by Abrego.
Abrego’s twin brother Cody was the star of the Semifinal with 449 yards rushing against Lawrence, but the Rockets bottled him and his teammates up for a combined 165 yards rushing. Instead – and much to Kyle Abrego’s surprise – the Pirates decided to take advantage of his 6-foot-4 height as he grabbed six passes for 236 yards against defenders mostly four to six inches shorter.
“We thought we had good coverage, but we just didn’t turn our heads quick enough and the result was big plays,” Rapid River coach Steve Ostrenga said. “We thought we could cover them, but we were worried about their speed on the outside and speed on runs. They gave their quarterback just enough time to get the ball released.
“We took the run away. But we certainly didn’t take the pass away.”
McDaniel credited Ostrenga as well for slowing the Pirates' rush, but was able to deploy his speedy lineup in another useful way.
Rapid River senior quarterback Jake Pearson – also the starter when the Rockets (12-1) fell to Carsonville-Port Sanilac in the 2011 Final – put up simply incredible numbers this season. He entered Friday with 2,525 yards and 42 touchdowns rushing and 1,009 yards and 15 scores passing.
But although Pearson was able to run for 180 yards and three scores and throw for a fourth, he didn’t find enough room to help the Rockets keep pace when Peck pulled away during the second and third quarters.
“We have the ability to play sideline to sideline, and we pushed Pearson to the sidelines and didn’t let him get the corner. We tried to keep him in the pocket or trap him,” McDaniel said.
Pearson will go down as one of the first stars of 8-player football in this state, with numbers that will earn him recognition in the national record book. Senior lineman Hayden Hardwick also was a sophomore on that 2011 runner-up team, and Pearson got to finish his high school career connecting with Hardwick on a touchdown pass out of a spread formation that made the center eligible.
“The kid is humble. I’m not sure how many words I can say about Jake Pearson,” Ostrenga said. “He’s a true ambassador for our school, for 8-(player) football. We were 1-8 four years ago, 1-8 two years in a row, and 8-(player) football has been great. To have a Jake Pearson and this team stay together, it’s been phenomenal.
“He’s everything you see.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Peck players chant while holding their first MHSAA championship trophy Friday at Legacy Field. (Middle) Pirates quarterback Tristen Haener (10) scores on a run during the second quarter.
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.)