By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – River Rouge wasn’t intimidated by Muskegon’s national acclaim or 859 football victories, the most by any Michigan high school.
If anything, the chance to knock off the unbeaten and top-ranked Big Reds brought out the absolute best in the Panthers.
After spotting Muskegon a 7-0 lead, Rouge scored the final 30 points to claim a 30-7 victory in the Division 3 championship game Saturday night at Ford Field.
“We are known for basketball, but now we have a football title,” said 10th-year Rouge coach Corey Parker, who lauded his team for playing fearlessly on both sides of the ball. “Now we have a football title, and 20 years from now these guys are going to be talking about it.”
All the talk coming into the game centered on Muskegon senior quarterback Cameron Martinez, the two-time MLive Player of the Year who had rushed for more than 2,000 yards. But the talk afterward was about a different QB – River Rouge’s Mareyohn Hrabowski.
Hrabowski, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior, answered an early score by Martinez with three rushing touchdowns of his own, finishing with 15 carries for 175 yards – an average of nearly 12 yards per carry. He also completed 6-of-12 passes for 45 yards.
“I just had to follow my blocks,” said Hrabowski. “I had faith in myself and my team, and we came out on top.”
It was the first Finals appearance and championship for Rouge, which has qualified for the playoffs all 10 years under Parker. Rouge lost its opener this fall to Friday’s Division 4 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central before reeling off 13 straight wins. The Panthers were ranked No. 5 in Division 3 entering the playoffs
The other storyline Saturday was the Rouge defense, which held a Muskegon team averaging 49 points per game to a season-low seven.
The Panthers did it with an ultra-aggressive strategy, sometimes with all 11 defensive players within three yards of the line of scrimmage just daring Martinez to throw the ball.
Instead, Muskegon kept trying to find a way to break Martinez through the initial wall and into the clear, but it never happened.
Martinez, a 5-11, 190-pound senior who has committed to Ohio State, finished with 108 rushing yards, but it took him 34 carries to get there – at 3.2 yards per carry. He also did not complete a single pass, going 0-for-5 through the air.
“We just didn’t play our game, really,” said Martinez, who faced relentless pressure every time he dropped back to throw. “We have played great for 13 weeks, and we picked a bad time to play bad.”
Hrabowski scored on runs of one and 40 yards in the second quarter, as the Panthers took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Rouge (13-1) kept its foot on the accelerator during the second half, with Rmontaye Caldwell returning the third-quarter kickoff 36 yards to the Muskegon 35-yard line. On the next play, Hrabowski went 35 yards on a keeper and the lead was 21-7.
The score remained the same until the fourth quarter, when Rouge rounded out the scoring on a 31-yard field goal by Avery Burch and a 33-yard run by Deandre Bulley.
Bulley, a 6-2, 245-pound senior who is being heavily recruited by schools at the Division I level, came into the game needing just 80 yards to reach 2,000 for the season. He came up five yards short, with 15 carries for 75 yards, but Hrabowski more than made up the difference.
Rouge used extremely wide splits on the offensive line to open up running lanes for Hrabowski, who stunned the stingy Big Reds’ defense with his vision and deceptive speed in the open field. On two of his scoring runs he faked a jet sweep handoff and ran straight ahead behind guard Deshawn Smith and tackle Chance Moore through the left side of the line and eventually into the end zone.
The final stats bear out Rouge’s dominance.
The Panthers held a 330-180 edge in total yards, including a 45-0 edge passing. Rouge outrushed Muskegon 285-180.
Darieon Jones, a 5-8, 190-pound senior defensive back, was everywhere for Rouge, registering a game-high 14 tackles, including 10 solos. Linebacker Deshawn Walker had eight tackles, and Tyron Jones and Chastin Cross each made six stops.
River Rouge has been known around the state as a basketball school, winning 12 Class B state titles under legendary coach Lofton Greene during the 1960s and 1970s. But now the Panthers, who are part of the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference, are making a name for themselves on the gridiron.
Rouge made a statement by dominating Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 49-14 in the Regional Final, then overcame a 7-0 fourth-quarter deficit in last week’s Semifinal to knock off Chelsea 14-7.
The Panthers rode that momentum into the Final.
Muskegon, led by senior linebacker Tarran Walker and senior safety Tyreese Oakes with nine tackles apiece, added another layer of frustration to its Ford Field troubles.
The Big Reds have played in a championship game at Ford Field seven of the last eight years. But the lone victory, and the lone Finals title for 10th-year head coach Shane Fairfield, came with a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison in 2017 for the Division 3 championship.
“That’s the way it happens,” said Fairfield, who last week became the second-winningest coach in Muskegon High School history. “We won 13 games and made 13 other teams feel this way. This is the risk you take. You could lose early or not even make the playoffs and never experience this.”
Muskegon, which had won 40 of its past 41 games entering Saturday night, is the winningest program in state history with 859 victories, a total which also ranks seventh nationally.
PHOTOS: (Top) River Rouge quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski rolls out and finds a receiver as Muskegon’s Billy Johnson Jr. (42) and Dwight McKinney close in. (Middle) River Rouge defenders including Rmontaye Caldwell (17) surround Big Reds quarterback Cameron Martinez.
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.)