By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
DETROIT — The players and their coach insisted they were playing for their own glory, not to deprive Ithaca of further greatness.
Monroe St. Mary would've savored an MHSAA Division 6 football championship regardless of the opponent, regardless of the historical backdrop.
But when the clock expired on the Falcons' 22-12 victory over Ithaca on Friday at Ford Field, once they'd secured their first title since 1991, there was a little extra pride among the St. Mary players.
Yeah, it was pretty special to beat a team with a nation-leading 69-game winning streak and four consecutive Division 6 championships.
"At the beginning of the week, we didn't really think about that," St. Mary senior linebacker David Howey said. "The coach just kept preaching there's 48 minutes left in high school football. That's a pretty cool win, though, beating the nation's longest winning streak in high school football. It's pretty cool. When we told people that's who we were going to play, they'd doubt us, and that just fueled me even more."
There was also a bit of a revenge motive for St. Mary (13-1), which lost 45-35 in the Division 6 final when the Yellowjackets' string of MHSAA titles began in 2010.
"It makes it a little more sweet, but it's just awesome," said senior John Lako, who ran for two touchdowns and made seven tackles with a sack at linebacker. "I was actually at the game when we lost to them in 2010. Just to see they were that close, it feels like we finally wrote the end of the book."
Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook hasn't had to deliver a postgame speech to his players following a loss since a 47-16 setback to Montague in a 2009 Division 6 Semifinal. From the start of 2010, the Yellowjackets assembled a winning streak that ranks 13th all-time in national high school football history. The streak included 24 consecutive playoff victories. Ithaca was trying to tie the record of five straight MHSAA titles shared by Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-2001) and East Grand Rapids (2006-10).
Ithaca had to come from behind in its previous two games just to keep the streak alive and return to Ford Field. The Yellowjackets trailed Madison Heights Madison 27-19 heading into the fourth quarter of the Regional Final before winning 41-27.
They made a stop on fourth down from the 4-yard line with 13 seconds left to preserve a 20-16 Semifinal victory over Boyne City, which took an early 14-0 lead.
"We've had maybe more talented teams, I'm going to be honest, and that's no knock on this football team," Hessbrook said. "But I've never coached a football team that has more heart and more resiliency, and that's going back to the teams we've had in the last four or five years. I don't care what team you put out there, this team will fight you every step of the way. I couldn't be more proud. We came up short. We missed a few opportunities. We came up a few plays short. One play in the kicking game, one play here or there on offense, we win that game, and we win it going away."
Ithaca (13-1) had only three victories with a margin of fewer than 10 points during the winning streak. Missed extra points by opponents played a major role in two of those games, a 22-19 overtime victory over Montague in the 2011 Regional Final and a 21-20 victory over Montrose in a 2013 Semifinal.
Ironically, points after touchdown were critical in the outcome of Friday's championship game.
Monroe St. Mary's edge in conversions began following the first touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run by Lako that capped an opening drive that milked the first 8:15 off the clock. An off-sides penalty by Ithaca on the extra point attempt moved the ball close enough to the goal line to make a two-point attempt more feasible. Justin Carrabino ran untouched around the right side to give St. Mary's an 8-0 lead.
Ithaca tried to make up the difference following its first touchdown, an 11-yard pass from Jake Smith to Spence DeMull with 9:20 left in the second quarter, but the two-point pass fell incomplete to leave St. Mary's up 8-6.
Special teams loomed even larger with 7:11 left in the second quarter when Troy Hilkens forced a fumbled punt return. The ball popped up to Travis Vuich, who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. Phillip Lehmann's extra point made it 15-6.
"It was a great feeling," Vuich said. "The guys did their job on the punt filling the lanes. The ball just popped right up."
Ithaca found the end zone for a second time on a 2-yard run by Smith with 33 seconds left in the first half. The extra-point attempt hit the upright, leaving the Yellowjackets down by a 15-12 margin despite matching St. Mary's two touchdowns.
"I hope that all those young people who were standing on our sideline understand what a small margin for error there is when you play for a state championship and understand how much work goes into it," Hessbrook said.
An Ithaca offense that averaged 43 points a game wouldn't score again, as St. Mary came up with huge defensive stops in the second half.
On fourth-and-one from the St. Mary 21, Ithaca was stopped in the backfield by Justin LaPlante and finished off by Darius Marks for a 1-yard loss with 2:29 left in the third quarter.
Ithaca marched to St. Mary's 19 on its next possession, but Bryce Windham (also the Falcons' quarterback) intercepted a pass after a reverse.
St. Mary's took over at its own 2-yard line with 10:19 remaining and was able to milk the clock down to 2:46 before punting. Ithaca got the ball at its own 20 for one final attempt to keep its winning and championship streaks alive. On second and 10, Lako sacked Smith for a 12-yard loss with 2:19 to go. On fourth-and-22, Marks intercepted a pass with 1:51 remaining and returned it to the 5.
Two plays later, Lako wrapped up the victory with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:41 left.
Ithaca threw four incompletions on its final possession, and St. Mary kneeled out the clock.
"We won today because of our defense," St. Mary coach Jack Giarmo said. "Offensively, we struggled a little bit, but defensively the kids just did a fantastic job battling."
Ithaca outgained St. Mary, 262-182, but had three costly turnovers. Smith ran 18 times for 90 yards and a touchdown while completing 14 of 29 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception. DeMull caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Vuich made two clutch catches for first downs when St. Mary took 7:33 off the clock following Windham's interception. Vuich caught three passes for 38 yards, accounting for more than half of Windham's 71 yards on 7 for 12 passing.
LaPlante had nine tackles, including two for losses, to lead St. Mary's defense. Reeser had a game-high 12 tackles for Ithaca.
PHOTOS: (Top) Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central players raise their first MHSAA football championship trophy since 1991 on Friday. (Middle) St. Mary defensive back Darius Marks (2) snags an interception in front of an Ithaca receiver. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
SMITH TO DEMULL FOR THE SCORE - Ithaca scores its first touchdown in the second quarter, with Jake Smith finding Spence DeMull in the end zone for the score.
FALCON FINDS GOOD FORTUNE - On its drive following the first Ithaca TD, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central punts and a loose ball on the return finds its way into the hands of Travis Vuich, who took it 19 yards for what proved to be the winning points.
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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.)