Nick Wheeler had a feeling growing up that he and his Gladwin classmates could have some success when it was their time to lead the Flying Gs varsity football program.
He just had no idea how much.
“I never saw the state championship,” the Gladwin senior quarterback and safety said. “I saw us winning the Jack Pine Conference, which was something that hadn’t been done in a while.”
Wheeler and his teammates have blown past those expectations and are now one win away from what once felt impossible.
Led by a strong senior class, Gladwin will play in an MHSAA Football Final for the first time Saturday. In Division 5, the Flying Gs will take on Frankenmuth, which is also seeking its first football title.
“This has been our dream since we’ve been in high school,” senior linebacker and running back Logan Kokotovich said. “We went down (to Ford Field) to watch games my freshman year, and it was amazing. Back before high school, we were blowing teams out of the water. Everyone thought we could be good, but we knew we had to really work hard to get there.”
Gladwin football was in a much different place when Wheeler, Kokotovich and their classmates entered high school. The program had won just six games total over the previous three seasons, and hadn’t been to the postseason since 2014.
“I remember going to games when I was young and we would always lose,” Kokotovich said. “I would tell my dad, ‘That’s not a surprise.’”
As the Class of 2023 entered the high school, the Flying Gs were getting new leadership. Marc Jarstfer took over as head coach in 2019 after being an assistant at his alma mater – and Gladwin’s arch rival – Clare.
“I had no idea of what was coming up,” Jarstfer said. “I didn’t really pay attention to the youth programs (at Gladwin) or that sort of thing. I was familiar with the current situation. I think in that first year our staff was here, we saw that group had pretty significant potential. They went undefeated on JV with two freshmen playing on varsity. We figured if they continue to work hard and do the right things, they could be very good.”
Kokotovich and receiver/safety Kaden McDonald both played varsity as freshmen, and 10 members of the Class of 2023 played varsity as sophomores.
It was during that 2020 season that the turnaround started to feel more like reality. Gladwin went 4-4, but its three regular-season losses were by a combined 24 points. It also had a win against Division 2 Dexter, which featured multiple college prospects.
“That’s when I started noticing it,” Wheeler said. “We were in close games with teams that we were never close with before, like Clare and Beaverton. And we were just young sophomores.”
The following year was a true breakthrough, as Gladwin went 9-0, claiming its first Jack Pine title in 20 years and winning it outright for the first time ever. Gladwin got there by defeating Clare for the first time in 40 years.
Then, in the first round of the playoffs, the Flying Gs’ season came to an abrupt halt, with a loss to that same Clare team.
It was humbling, but also motivating.
“We just thought we were the best,” Wheeler said. “That really put us down and made us work even harder for next season to achieve our goal. The coaches, they put pictures right in front of our squat rack of Clare beating us. So that’s looking at us every time we lift.”
The motivation clearly worked, as Gladwin repeated its 9-0 regular season, winning a second-straight Jack Pine title. This time, however, the Flying Gs were even more dominant. They outscored their regular-season opponents by a combined 444-48, with 27 of those points allowed coming in their 33-27 win at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.
But nothing Gladwin accomplished could compare to its 28-21 Semifinal win against Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Cougars had won Finals titles in four of the past five seasons, including the past two Division 5 titles. It was the first postseason loss for Catholic Central since 2018.
“Everybody doubted us going into that game,” Wheeler said. “Grand Rapids Catholic Central, everybody thinks they’re just the best, but we just took it as they were another team. We didn’t think of them any differently. Everybody (on the team) believed. It was probably the best feeling of my life.”
The Flying Gs are now one win away from an even better feeling. But no matter what happens at Ford Field on Saturday, they’ve already established themselves as the group that turned the program around.
That’s a feeling that’s made even more special by the fact they’ve been able to do it with their lifelong friends.
“It is definitely going to be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Kokotovich said. “This group of guys is everything. We’ve pushed each other so much, and it’s all just falling together. This is awesome.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Gladwin's Logan Kokotovich (12) holds onto the ball during Saturday's Semifinal win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. (Middle) Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to shed a blocker and get to the GRCC quarterback. (Below) Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. (Photos by Mike Kolleth.)
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.)