By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – Their parents are taking credit for this, and for many reasons, rightfully so.
But the moms and dads who birthed the athletes rolling through Powers North Central’s football and boys basketball programs these last few years never stacked championships like this. For that matter, no class at any Michigan school has accomplished what the Jets seniors added to Friday night.
North Central’s 58-22 win over Deckerville at Legacy Field finished a second straight undefeated 8-player football championship season for the Jets, to go with two straight undefeated Class D championship teams for their boys basketball team – and ignited questions of how a school with only 115 students from a small Upper Peninsula community could come up with such a collection of talent.
Jets assistant coach Gerald Whitens provided his son, star quarterback and hoops guard Jason Whitens, with one explanation.
“Most of our parents went to North Central. It’s coming back around,” Jason Whitens said. “We had a good family group that stayed at Powers North Central, and we just kept filtering through and growing as a group. My dad said he blazed the path for us, and we just made it even bigger. So I have to give him a little credit.”
Added senior running back Bobby Kleiman, whose dad Scott also is a football assistant and played with Gerald Whitens on the school’s 1984 Class D champion basketball team: “(This kind of group) doesn’t come by often, I can tell you that. But we’re blessed to have the kids we have. The timing, everything, it just fell into place. We grew up with each other, we love each other, and it’s just a blessing to have the kids we have.”
That blessing to North Central athletics has been an unmovable obstacle for football opponents the last two seasons.
The Jets finished this run 13-0 to move to 26-0 since switching to 8-player before the start of the 2015 season.
But this most recent win didn’t come as smoothly as the score might indicate – at least during most of one quarter.
The first belonged to North Central, and the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Whitens in particular. In 2015, Kleiman became the first player in the then-five seasons of 8-player football to run for more than 200 yards in an MHSAA Final, finishing with 205. Whitens obliterated that record in the first quarter Friday, running for 231 yards and three touchdowns on only five carries as the Jets opened up a 20-0 lead.
But Deckerville, also undefeated and making its first championship game appearance since winning 8-player in 2012, didn’t fold. In fact, the Eagles (11-1) rode the running of senior tailback Austin Fritch and senior quarterback Brandon Pattullo, who combined for 162 yards rushing and three touchdowns during the second quarter to put the Eagles up suddenly 22-20 with 1:57 to play before the break.
North Central had trailed only once before this season, into the third quarter Week 2 against Crystal Falls Forest Park before coming back to win 60-42.
“We’re not used to other people scoring on us and having close games,” Bobby Kleiman said. “But we played Crystal Falls two weeks ago (a 60-50 Regional Final rematch); they’re an exact replica of this team. We had one of the craziest games ever with them, and they really prepared us for this game.”
Indeed, Whitens scored on a 44-yard run a minute after Deckerville took its lead, and the Jets never trailed again. Kleiman added a 49-yard scoring run less than three minutes into the third quarter, and Whitens added 37 and 2-yard scoring runs and a 71-yard touchdown pass to senior Marcus Krachinski.
Whitens finished with an 8-Player Finals rushing record that may not be broken in some time, 352 yards on only 17 carries (20.7 yards per carry) with six touchdowns. His numbers could’ve been greater, or at least different if for just two plays, both dropped passes that likely would’ve resulted in touchdowns. Still, Whitens completed 6 of his 12 throws for 100 yards despite rain that blew sideways for most of the first three quarters.
Deckerville had given up only 50 points total this season and only 18 during the playoffs despite facing two other undefeated teams.
“We made a nice comeback there, but you’ve still got to keep going, and we weren’t able to make some plays,” Deckerville coach Bill Brown said. “We can’t give up big plays and expect to win. We don’t have a kid like that that can get 80-yard runs every time and score.”
Fritch and Pattullo did both finish with 133 yards rushing, Pattullo on only 12 carries for an average of 11.1 yards per attempt.
Kleiman added 123 yards rushing on 10 carries despite what North Central read as Deckerville aligning to stop him early on. That read led to Whitens’ big first quarter, including a 38-yard run on the first offense play of the game, on the “dart” quarterback keeper play that North Central continued to throw at the Eagles throughout the night.
The addition of Friday’s performance gave Whitens 2,496 yards and 44 touchdowns passing this season, along with 943 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing.
He’s one of 11 seniors who played his last high school football game – and six of those seniors also played in last season’s Class D Basketball Final.
“This is the best class probably ever in the state, to do what they’ve done,” North Central coach Kevin Bellefeuil said. “Two basketball titles, two football titles, and they have to be a favorite to win a third one (in hoops).
“This is a special group of kids. We have the right mix of skill players, offensive linemen, linebackers; we have a little bit of everything.”
And some will take only a short break. Whitens said at first he’d be back to work for basketball Saturday morning. Then he self-corrected – he’ll wait until Monday instead.
“You’re never satisfied with who you were last year, or the day before. You’re always growing to get better each and every day of your life, and that’s how I go about my life,” Whitens said.
“We’ve got our eyes on the ultimate prize. This is our last year, last run at it, and we’re going to enjoy it. … I’m going to get home, join our community, let them bask in the glory with us. And then Monday morning, I’m ready to go.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central quarterback Jason Whitens breaks away for one of his six rushing touchdowns Friday. (Middle) A Deckerville ball carrier works to get free of a North Central defender. (Below) Whitens confers with Jets coach Kevin Bellefeuil. (Photos by John Johnson/MHSAA.)
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.)