By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MARQUETTE – Hunter Nowak finished his high school career Saturday at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome as arguably the most accomplished offensive star in Morrice football history.
But he’d be the first to point out that the Orioles put the finishing touch on their first perfect and championship season because of the effort on the other side of the ball as well.
Nowak capped a three-year varsity campaign rushing 39 times for 199 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for another score as Morrice broke away for a 44-16 win over Pickford to claim the 8-Player Division 1 championship – the Orioles’ first state title in this sport. They also finished 13-0.
And his defense played a big part in making that possible, locking down a Panthers offense that entered the Final averaging 54 points per game and also unbeaten.
“I told them before, going in, ‘Boys, this is your last game. Just sell out,’” Morrice senior linebacker/fullback Connor Lucas said. “’Leave it all on the field. Do not regret it.’
“When we did the (coin) toss, and they said they wanted to receive, we were actually more happy that they wanted to receive because we knew our defense could shut them down.”
Defense has not been a hallmark of the first decade of 8-player football in Michigan. But Morrice seemed to figure it out this fall.
The Orioles gave up 78 points – a mere six per game – and from mid-September through the first week of the playoffs posted six straight shutouts.
Morrice gave up a respectable 21 points per game in going 9-2 in 2017, playing a basic 4-4 scheme. But leading tackler Lucas said this season the defense rotated through about 20 formations.
Pickford’s lowest point total this fall had been 38 points in a Week 3 win over Crystal Falls Forest Park.
“They were quick, they were strong … they were aggressive,” said Pickford junior quarterback Jimmy Storey, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season with 92 Saturday, but completed only 4 of 17 passes. “They were really aggressive and tough, and gave us a run for our money.”
Pickford junior running back Stephen LaMothe opened the scoring with a 14-yard run only 2:39 into the game.
But Nowak followed with 45 and 4-yard touchdown runs and a 15-yard scoring pass to senior Austin Edington to take a 22-8 lead into the break. “Going into the locker room at halftime, and we were up, we could definitely tell they were kinda surprised,” Lucas said.
Nowak opened the second half with another scoring run. LaMothe – who finished with 99 yards rushing on 14 carries – broke a 60-yarder at the end of the third quarter to make the score 30-16. But Edington pulled the Orioles away with 54 and 6-yard scoring runs in the fourth quarter.
Edington finished with 122 yards rushing on 10 carries as the team ran for 317 of its 353 yards total.
“Once we started the game, started gaining a little momentum, we could see some of our run plays were working better than what we thought they (would),” Morrice coach Kendall Crockett said. “We were moving the bigger men on the other team, and Hunter just made the lanes work, and Austin, and Connor was blocking and the plays work. When you design them, and they work in a game, it’s fun to watch.”
Crockett took over the program five seasons ago when Morrice switched from 11-player, and brought to the gameplan some of the spread scheme from his time as an assistant at DeWitt. “When I took over the job in 8-man football, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said. “I looked to some of the more experienced coaches – Rob McDaniel from Peck, Deckerville, you look to those different coaches to find out what worked for them. We tried their stuff, and that’s when we decided we had to go our own way and see what works for Morrice.
“We came up with the system we have today, and you know what – speed, especially out here, speed hurts.”
Morrice’s previous longest playoff run was to the Class D Semifinals in 1996. The Orioles went 9-2 three seasons ago but fell back to 4-5 in 2016 before starting a two-year climb to history.
“We’ve been dreaming of this since we were in third grade playing together,” Nowak said. “Our sophomore year, things didn’t go right. Last year we made the playoffs, we didn’t do too well. But we knew this year was the year to do it. We played every game super hard, went undefeated – just everything worked out.”
Pickford capped its third straight season of making the Semifinals with its first trip to a championship game. The Panthers will graduate just two of 18 players on Saturday’s roster. Crockett said he saw in the Panthers’ junior class the potential to do what his seniors accomplished this fall.
Senior Chase Warner had 12 tackles for Pickford, while Storey and junior Isaiah May both had 10. Senior Beau Dietz had 10 tackles to lead Morrice.
“We’re going to have to remember it, and work that much harder in the offseason,” Storey said. “We gotta come back next year and get it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Morrice’s Austin Edington dives for the end zone for one of his three touchdowns Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Orioles’ Hunter Nowak breaks past a Pickford defender. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)