And then there were 32. That's all that remains from the original 256 MHSAA playoff football teams heading into Saturday's Semifinals.
This week's Prep Zone games feature three top-ranked contenders and four that remain 12-0 with only two possible games left in this season. Next weekend, it's off to Ford Field and the Finals.
Here's a look at some of what you'll see. (Rankings below are by The Associated Press' panel of media voters.)
DIVISION 1: Rockford (11-1) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (11-1)
Battle Creek Central’s C.W. Post Field
These two entered the postseason ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Oddly, this will be just the second time these powers will meet, and first since DCC’s 27-23 win over the Rams in the 1998 Class AA Final. The Shamrocks’ only loss this fall came to Orchard Lake St. Mary in Week 8, and DCC avenged it with a 21-7 win seven days later. Not much has changed during the postseason, aside from the Shamrocks’ defense getting a little bit stingier – they’ve given up 20 points total in three playoff games. Rockford has done a little more surviving, advancing with two wins by seven points or fewer. The Rams always run the ball hard, and both Brady Gent and Ryan Hartley have had 100-plus yards in playoff games so far. This game also pits two of the winningest coaches in MHSAA history – DCC’s Tom Mach has 314 victories since 1976 and Rockford’s Ralph Munger has 271 since 1980.
DIVISION 3: Mount Pleasant (12-0) vs. East Grand Rapids (9-3)
Ferris State University’s Top Taggart Field
The top-ranked Oilers have played their part in East Grand Rapids’ 28-game playoff winning streak, getting knocked out by the Pioneers two of the last three seasons. But this is the third straight Mount Pleasant team to post at least 11 wins, and might be the best of this recent run. Sophomore running back Michael Tweh is the name to know on offense, with 1,726 yards and 24 touchdowns rushing this season, while senior Dustin Lee has run for 14 touchdowns and scored four more on passes. As for No. 9 East Grand Rapids, it could well end up the final team standing again. The Pioneers have avenged two of their losses since the start of the playoffs – against Grand Rapids Christian and Holland – and have scored at least 42 points four weeks in a row. David Drummond has run for 1,739 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Travis Palmer has 15 TD passes.
DIVISION 3: Battle Creek Harper Creek (12-0) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary (10-2)
Jackson Withington Stadium
Orchard Lake St. Mary, ranked No. 4, is used to reaching this round, going for its fourth Finals appearance in five seasons and third straight. At least defensively, this might be the best of those Eaglets teams – linebacker James Ross, who has committed to sign with Michigan this winter, is arguably the top defensive player in the state. This will be a much newer experience for No. 3 Harper Creek, which is in its first Semifinal since 1999 but also set a school record for wins. But the Beavers’ game is a great fit on what should be a chilly afternoon on fast turf – Harper Creek runs behind a massive offensive line, led by 6-foot-4, 300-pound Kelby Latta. He blocks for an offense averaging 41 points a game.
DIVISION 8: Mendon (12-0) vs. New Lothrop (12-0)
Howell High School
Top-ranked Mendon’s run through the playoffs has included a win over co-No. 1 Muskegon Catholic and another last week against No. 8 Climax-Scotts. But this might be the toughest test of all. The Hornets have given up fewer than four points a game this fall, and no more than eight since opening night. Oh, and they also score 52 points per game, led by multi-talented junior quarterback Austin Newman. Mendon keeps on trucking in its bid for a fifth MHSAA championship in 11 years. Junior Tyler Harris is up to 1,623 yards and 22 touchdowns running the ball, and two more teammates are over 900. Harris ran for 253 yards and four scores in last week’s Regional final.
(Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)