By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – It hasn’t happened here in 30 years.
But this weekend Traverse City Central and St. Francis can put the wraps on 9-0 regular seasons, marking the first time two Traverse City football teams have accomplished that feat in the same season since 1985. Traverse City Senior High – before the school was split – won the Class A state championship that year.
"We know both our programs have a good thing going," Central athletic director Mark Mattson said. "Regardless of what school you're at, you want the other Traverse City programs to be successful, too. Right now we appreciate where we are. We're enjoying the ride."
So is St. Francis, where coach Josh Sellers, back for his second stint, is hoping an amazing trend continues. The Gladiators have made just four coaching changes in the last 42 years. In the first year after each coaching change, St. Francis is a combined 44-1 with three MHSAA Finals championships – and now the possibility of a fourth.
It all started in 1974 – the year before the playoffs began – when Larry Sellers took over an 8-1 program from Waldo Keating and finished 9-0 en route to a Class D mythical state championship. The beat continued in 2003 when Josh Sellers inherited a 10-2 team from his Hall of Fame father and went 14-0 in capturing the Division 7 crown. When Sellers moved to Tennessee after a 12-2 season in 2007, Greg Vaughan came aboard and led the Gladiators to a 13-1 mark and another Division 7 title.
Now, Sellers is back as head coach and St. Francis is riding high with an 8-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press’ Division 7 poll.
"This team is very workmanlike, very similar to the 2003 team," Sellers said. "We don't have a lot of vocal leaders, but we have kids who like to play for each other and that's half the battle."
Across town, another change is producing impressive results. First-year head coach Eric Schugars’ Traverse City Central Trojans are 8-0 and ranked No. 7 in this week's Associated Press Division 2 poll. Schugars served as defensive coordinator for four years under Tom Passinault, who stepped down after a successful eight-year run.
"Going 9-0 is hard to do, but we're pretty excited about having that opportunity," Schugars said.
There are links between the St. Francis and Central programs. Former Gladiators standout and assistant coach Greg Sherwin is now the offensive line coach at Central. His two sons are the starting tackles. Two former Central head coaches, Joe Forlenza and Passinault, are assistants at St. Francis. Forlenza is the long-time defensive coordinator for the Gladiators while Passinault joined the staff this season as defensive line coach.
In addition, 16 players from the two teams – including the starting quarterbacks, St. Francis' Joe Coates and Central's Reagan Cotton – were teammates on a Pop Warner squad coached by Sherwin and Rick Coates. Joe Coates and Cotton also trained together in the Popp Quarterback Tutor Camp for seven years.
The two seniors direct entirely different offenses. St. Francis relies on a potent ground game, Central likes to air the ball out in its wide-open spread attack.
Sellers added some new wrinkles to the Gladiators’ offense, but he's not deviating from what's been the program's staple.
"It's still old fashioned St. Francis smashmouth football," Sellers said. "We're going to run the football, control the line of scrimmage and control the clock."
The Gladiators average 327 rushing yards a game. Joe Trucco and Jacob Klingelsmith are picking up nearly 11 yards per carry. Trucco has a team-high 835 yards, Klingelsmith 686.
Coates is efficient when the Gladiators take to the air. Of his 20 completions, nine are for touchdowns.
"Joe does a great job making decisions, getting the ball to the right receiver," Sellers said.
St. Francis is averaging nearly 50 points a game. The defense, led by Gabe Callery and Tyler Picardat, is surrendering just 7.5 points a contest. The team's signature win is a 32-13 triumph over 7-1 Boyne City, which snapped the Ramblers 13-game regular-season win streak. The score was 7-7 at the half.
"That was such a battle," Coates said. "Both teams played hard. That (second half) was probably the one moment where I've seen our team reach a level of greatness. But I don't think we've reached our full potential just yet."
Sellers agreed. He said his team is improving every week.
St. Francis returned a strong nucleus from a team that went 9-3 last season, so the 8-0 start is not a surprise.
"The team expected it," Sellers said. "A lot of people around the team expected it after having made a push into the third round of the playoffs (last season) and having only two regular-season losses, both in overtime. I think the kids were hungry to work hard this summer and come back and try to prove those losses were flukes. These kids have high expectations."
Those high expectations come based on the long-term success of the program, Coates said. St. Francis has won 76 percent of its games since it started playing football in 1951. In the last 13 years, the Gladiators have reached the MHSAA Finals five times, winning four titles.
"It's crazy to look back at it," Coates, a one-time waterboy for the team, said. "You're brought up in an atmosphere where success is almost the only option. When you think of St. Francis football, you think of winning (games) and winning state championships."
It's been a rather seamless transition for Sellers, thanks in part to a veteran coaching staff that includes Jim Carroll, who’s been with the Gladiators 51 years. In his first stint, Sellers was 57-7 with two MHSAA crowns in five years.
"The biggest hurdle was I didn't know the kids and they didn't know me," he said.
Sellers, 41, was hired in March to replace Vaughan, who had coached the Gladiators the last seven years and had also won two titles.
"Greg (Vaughan) did such a great job for us the time he was here," St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy said. "To our seniors, Greg Vaughan was St. Francis football. It did take some time for Josh to get to know the kids and for the kids to understand who he is and what he believes in. That was done very quickly. From my perspective, it was like Josh had never left. He's done a fantastic job. There is a sense of calm, a sense of determination and a sense of pride that he brings (to the program)."
St. Francis hosts 5-3 Kingsley on Saturday. The last time the Gladiators went undefeated in the regular season was 2009. Coates was at Ford Field that year when the Gladiators captured the championship. In fact, he was there in 2008 and 2005, too.
"I'm hoping to make my own trip this year," he said.
An 8-0 start might not raise eyebrows at St. Francis, but it has come as a mild surprise at Central. Petoskey and Traverse City West were considered the favorites in the Big North Conference, but the youthful Trojans rallied to win both those showdowns in overtime. Central was down 21-0 at halftime at Petoskey.
Schugars said one of his first objectives as head coach was to develop the character of his team and get the players to believe in themselves. He said that was a key in creating a winning mentality.
"There's a certain edge you have to play with," he said. "You don't want to go out there and see what happens. You want to go out there expecting to win. It's about creating high expectations amongst our players. We're trying to set standards of excellence. Our kids have certainly done a good job buying in."
Schugars said the players worked hard, starting in the winter, to prepare for this season. Cotton, who took over as the starting quarterback late last season, became the catalyst as Central made changes in its offense, implementing a fast-paced no-huddle system.
"He's steady, he's poised," Schugars said of Cotton. "He has a calming influence on our team."
He's accurate, too. Cotton's completed 96 of 147 passes (65 percent) for 1,337 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's thrown just three interceptions.
He's also spread the ball around. Playmaker Devante Walker leads the team with 28 receptions, five for touchdowns. Walker's averaging nearly 17 yards a catch. Griffin Cencer's pulled in 22 receptions and Terrell Solberg 19.
John Pupel and Walker lead the ground game. Pupel's rushed for 612 yards and 13 touchdowns, Walker 474 yards and seven scores.
Schugars credits the offensive line of tackles Ben and Sam Sherwin, guards Jacob Steelman and Brendan Arnold and center Alex Windholz for giving Cotton time to pass and the backs room to roam.
"We're riding them and they know it," he said.
The defense is anchored by Pupel at strong safety, Fitz Doud at inside linebacker and senior ends Zach Mayo and Max Franz.
The two overtime wins were milestones in the season and showed the team’s resolve, especially the comeback win at Petoskey when the outcome looked dire with Central down 21 points.
"We challenged the kids at halftime," Schugars said. "We needed a break in that game and we got one, a turnover and we scored quickly after that. Right then you could feel the momentum changing. It was like this is our game. That's all it took. It goes back into believing in each other."
"We were disappointed in ourselves (the first half)," Cotton added. "We knew we could play better. Coach told us to take it one play at a time, go out and give 100 percent each play."
Never looking too far ahead has been a theme with this team.
"Going into a season every team wants to go 9-0," Cotton said. "The biggest thing for us is that we've taken it one game at a time."
Central is a young team that relies heavily on a talented junior class. Although Pupel, Walker and Ben Sherwin were mainstays on the varsity as sophomores, Schugars didn't know how long it would take for the team to jell.
Turns out, it didn't take long. Now the Trojans, if they can beat Cadillac on Friday, are on the brink of accomplishing something that hasn't been done since 1988 – a perfect regular season.
"And we all know what happened that year (a state championship)," Schugars said.
It's been quite a start for the 38-year-old Schugars, whose father Jack is in the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Even his father didn't go 9-0 his first year. He went 6-3 at Muskegon Oakridge.
"That's about all (I have on him)," Eric Schugars said, laughing. "I'm a proud son, proud of what he's done. If I can (achieve) half of what he's done, it will be a success."
Mattson said the players instantly took to Schugars.
"We brought the football players into the cafeteria when we made the announcement," he said. "They roared (with approval). That indicated he had their support.
"The kids and his staff have worked hard for him and that's a sign of a good coach, a good leader. It's been extremely fun to watch."
Mattson said Schugars' character has had a positive impact on the players.
"Eric is such a good person and family man, and a fantastic teacher," he said. "It's who Eric is as a person, even more so than a coach, that's impressive. They (players) know him as a person. They know he cares."
Central honored the 1975 and 1985 teams at last Friday’s game with West Branch Ogemaw Heights. Now, that 1985 season could come up again this weekend.
"9-0 would be a big deal for us," Cotton said.
It would be for St. Francis, too.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) A Traverse City Central ball-carrier drags a defender toward the goalline, left, and a St. Francis player appears to signal his team's possession of the ball. (Middle) The St. Francis defense lines up during a game this season. (Below) A Central ball-carrier runs away from would-be tacklers. (Photos courtesy of Traverse City Central and Traverse City St. Francis.)
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.)