By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
The understudy has become the star for the Muskegon Mona Shores football team.
James Gilbert was supposed to be “the other guy” this season, the receiver on the opposite side from Division I recruit Damari Roberson, who has committed to Western Michigan University.
But the cast list changed in June when Roberson, a 3.6 GPA student who at one time had more than 17 college football scholarship offers, tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time in nine months during a non-contact drill.
“That’s when everything changed,” explained Gilbert, who always had considered himself a basketball player on the football field. “The coaches and Damari sat me down and told me that I had to be the man, that I was the only one with the same type of ability that could take his place. They basically challenged me.”
Shores coach Matt Koziak said Gilbert, a 6-foot-2, 181-pound senior, has always had the physical skills. But since Roberson went down this summer, he has been focused, motivated and driven like never before.
The result has been an incredible senior season for Gilbert, who has 51 catches for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns. His emergence as one of the top receivers in the state enabled the Sailors to climb all the way to No. 1 in Division 2 in the final Associated Press state rankings.
Mona Shores (9-1) will put its top ranking to the test Friday night in the MHSAA District championship game against visiting Ottawa-Kent Conference Black rival Jenison (7-3). The two teams engaged in a shootout just three weeks ago, with the visiting Sailors escaping with a 49-42 victory.
Gilbert played a huge role in that win, with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, coming up big once again when his team needed it most.
“JG has been unbelievable all year,” said Koziak, who has a 60-26 record in eight years as the Sailors’ coach, highlighted by a run to the Division 2 title game in 2014. “With all of the injuries we’ve had, he’s kind of been the one constant. When we’re scratching our heads, we can always throw it up to James.”
Coming into the season, Koziak knew he had senior battering ram running back Sincere Dent (5-11, 217), who has delivered with 118 carries for 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns. The problem is that Dent has played in only seven games and his playing time was reduced in several others due to shoulder and ankle injuries.
Junior quarterback Caden Broersma (6-3, 206) also has been outstanding, completing 81-of-112 passes (72 percent) for 1,547 yard and 13 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also has rushed for 621 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The most surprising statistic for Mona Shores is that Gilbert has accounted for 76 percent of the Sailors’ receiving yards.
“I’m not surprised, because he’s always had it in him,” said Roberson, who has remained a key part of the team, attending every practice and serving as another assistant coach for Koziak. “I always learned from him in basketball, and I taught him everything he knows about football. With me being out, he’s had more of a chance to show what he can do.”
Gilbert is starting to garner more and more interest from college football programs, with Saginaw Valley State, Ferris, Davenport and Mount Union (Ohio) showing the most thus far.
Gilbert wasted no time proving he would be “the man,” showing his big-play ability with five catches for 159 yards (32 yards per catch) and a touchdown in a big 48-38 win over East Kentwood in the season-opening Gridiron Classic at Grand Valley State University. East Kentwood hasn’t lost a game since.
He also came up big in the cross-town showdown Oct. 12 against unbeaten Muskegon, which is ranked No. 1 in Division 3. Gilbert caught six passes for 118 yards, including a one-handed, 28-yard touchdown grab. He also threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Swick on a trick play in that 55-35 loss.
And Gilbert was at it again in last week’s narrow 34-28 District win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, catching five passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. He sealed the win with an interception as the Rangers were driving for a potential game-winning score in the final minute.
“It’s been fun, but we know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Gilbert, who has impressed opposing coaches with his ability to come down with big catches in traffic. “Damari and I have been playing with each other and against each other since Little League, so I kind of feel that I’m playing for him this season.”
As for Roberson, he still believes that a season that began with a nightmare injury could have a storybook ending – both for the team and himself.
Roberson (6-2, 194) said his rehabilitation is going great and his possible return date from the injury is during the week of the MHSAA Semifinals. So there remains the possibility, if the team keeps winning, that Roberson and Gilbert could line up as opposite wideouts, like the original plan.
“Stay tuned,” said Roberson, who is on pace to graduate early in December and then enroll at WMU in January. “After all that this team has been through, with all of the injuries, that would be the perfect ending.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mona Shores senior James Gilbert makes a one-handed catch for a 28-yard touchdown on a pass from Caden Broersma early in the second quarter Oct. 12 at Muskegon. (Middle) Damari Roberson returns a punt last year as a junior against Reeths-Puffer. Roberson has not played this season due to a knee injury. (Photos by Eric Sturr.)
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.)