By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Travis Russell had faced this situation plenty over the last three years – first at the end of the 2012 Division 5 Final, then while lying in bed at night before games over the last two seasons.
As a sophomore quarterback that season, attempting to lead Grand Rapids West Catholic on a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Russell was the listener – to his then-senior receivers and linemen offering encouragement – as the Falcons came up 12 yards short of overtaking Portland for an MHSAA title.
On Saturday, in the last of his three championship game appearances and final of 42 high school games, Russell entered the huddle as leader – encouraging teammates who stood 64 yards and three points from the school’s second straight title.
He told them, “This is what we live for, guys. We worked so hard all season for this moment. It’s going to pay off. Give everything you have, and it’s going to be fine.”
More than six minutes and 17 plays later, Russell ran three yards through the middle of Lansing Catholic’s defense to give West Catholic a 24-20 lead it would defend over the final minute to claim the school’s third MHSAA championship in five seasons and first perfect season since 1976.
“Definitely I lived it in the past; sometimes the night before games I’d think about it,” Russell said of the failed final possession in 2012, which stalled at Portland's 12-yard line as the Falcons lost 12-9. “Today, it wasn’t on my mind at all. Really, all I thought about was what can we do for each other right now to get it done.”
Russell ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 203 and another score as the Falcons opened with a 17-0 lead, allowed the previously-undefeated Cougars to score 20 unanswered points, and then went back ahead late with Russell either running or throwing on all 17 plays of the final drive.
Lansing Catholic (13-1) completed a pass to its 32-yard line to begin its last-ditch possession to retake the lead, but senior Brett Wildman came down with an interception on the next play to effectively end the game.
Grand Rapids West Catholic (14-0) rarely trailed this season in outscoring its opponents on average 41-14. The Falcons fell behind last week early in its Semifinal against Menominee, also its opponent in the 2013 Final (a 27-14 win), but had never trailed in the fourth quarter this fall.
But after scoring on three of its first four possessions, West Catholic didn’t again for more than 24 minutes while Lansing Catholic scored on three of its next four after Russell’s 8-yard scoring run with 1:43 to go in the first half.
Cougars junior quarterback Tony Poljan – who also ran for a 7-yard score and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to senior Zac Baker during the comeback – gave Lansing Catholic a 20-17 lead with a 22-yard scoring pass to junior running back Tony Palmer with 7:38 to play.
“We talk all the time (about) don’t get rattled, stay focused, teams are going to make plays,” West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. “This is state championship football; you don’t get here with a bad football team. We had to make adjustments, they made some big plays and we were a little down on ourselves. But we stayed focused and made sure when we got the ball back that we chipped away a little bit.
“We have 24 seniors, and we need those kids to stay focused and play like leaders down the stretch. You don’t get to this level without those kind of kids and that kind of effort.”
That’s something Lansing Catholic has known as well in making the Finals twice over the last four seasons. In 2011, the Cougars were led by another sizable quarterback in Cooper Rush (now starting at Central Michigan University) but fell to Flint Powers Catholic 56-26 in that championship game. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Poljan had never played quarterback before last season; he finished the Final with 60 yards rushing and a touchdown and 269 passing with two scores – giving him 2,806 yards and 34 touchdowns passing and 1,013 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing for the season.
“(He’s a) tremendous athlete that’s worked really hard to get where he’s at,” Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern said. “When we had to get some yards today, he got yards. He threw the ball well.
“I’m real proud of him. He’s worked for everything he’s got.”
Palmer was Poljan’s main target, catching eight passes, while senior lineman Ian Gorgenson paced the Cougars’ defense with 13 tackles. Senior running back Nick Buursma also ran for a score for West Catholic, and senior Charlie O’Connor had 111 receiving yards and caught the lone scoring toss from Russell. Wildman had a team-high 10 tackles and a sack in addition to his rally-stopping interception.
Lansing Catholic hadn’t scored fewer than 21 points since opening night 2013 and hadn’t given up more than 22 since West Catholic put up 38 on the Cougars in last season’s District Final. Ahern believed the teams were similar – similar offensive styles, standout quarterbacks who can run and pass. But Lansing Catholic just couldn’t stop what it knew was coming in crunch time.
“It just shows the growth and resilience of this team. We’ve been in every situation that is possible, and it’s just a credit to the guys,” Russell said. “Being able to fight, to dig deep and find something that Coach can’t really tell us to have. You can’t teach the will power guys had at practice, that was able to help us get it done today.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids West Catholic celebrates its second straight MHSAA Division 5 championship Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) West Catholic’s Brett Wildman (2) works with a teammate to bring down Lansing Catholic’s Tony Poljan. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
FALCONS FIRST TD - Grand Rapids West Catholic led 10-0 after the first quarter, its touchdown coming on an 87-yard pitch and catch from Travis Russell to Charlie O'Connor.
COUGARS BACK IN THE GAME - Late in the third quarter, Lansing Catholic tightened things up with a 96-yard drive, capped by a 41-yard pass from Tony Poljan to Zac Baker.
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.)