Tayte VanderLeest is a prototypical receiver and safety, with great size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer first-year coach Cody Kater also gushes about the senior’s work ethic and attitude, and concludes by saying, “He’s the kind of kid you want to date your daughter.”
“I would say he’s too nice,” said Kater, a two-time all-stater at Montague who went on to play quarterback at Grand Rapids Community College and Central Michigan. “We’d like to see him a little grittier, but he’s a gamer and I have seen him flip that switch. I expect him to do that this Friday night.”
Reeths-Puffer (2-0) plays one of its biggest football games in years Friday, when it travels across town to face Muskegon (1-1) in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green opener for both teams.
Historically, it hasn’t been much of a game, with Muskegon holding a lopsided 22-1-1 edge in the all-time series, and with most of those games in the blowout category. Muskegon has won the past nine games by an average of 44 points.
That puts the Rockets into a somewhat ideal position – no pressure, but with the opportunity to make a huge statement.
“It’s very exciting,” said VanderLeest, a returning all-conference receiver who has received interest from several Mid-American Conference schools including Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio). “We are 2-0, which is great, but this is the kind of game where we can really prove ourselves. We want to show that we belong in big games like this.”
Puffer opened the season with a convincing 32-20 win over visiting Grand Haven, then hit the road last Thursday for a 38-14 win over St. Johns.
Muskegon, meanwhile, has not looked like its normal dominating self thus far (although playing a pair of strong opponents certainly has been a contributing factor). The Big Reds rallied from an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a 20-14 win over visiting East Kentwood in the opener, then lost 49-16 on Friday to reigning Division 2 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate. East Kentwood bounced back last week to defeat Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, and De La Salle hasn’t lost since the 2020 Division 2 championship game.
Some of the issues for Muskegon are injuries and youth, with 13th-year head coach Shane Fairfield looking for more seniors to step up in leadership roles.
VanderLeest and other strong senior leaders like quarterback Brady Ross and center/defensive tackle Hunter Allison have sparked the Rockets’ quick start. The soft-spoken VanderLeest is more of a leader-by-example, although Kater said he has noticed him becoming more vocal with the younger receivers and defensive backs.
VanderLeest is one of those players who has football in his blood, literally, as his father Rob VanderLeest was an all-state lineman at Muskegon Catholic Central and went on to play four years at Michigan under Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr.
“Football is in my DNA,” explained Tayte VanderLeest. “It’s been part of my life as long as I can remember. Now I’m a senior, and I feel the pressure on me to live up to the standards that my dad set.”
He will play a key role defensively from his strong safety spot, where one of his main duties will be trying to tackle Muskegon’s dynamic junior duo of running back Jakob Price and slotback Destin Piggee, preventing long TD runs and forcing the Big Reds to march the ball down the field.
VanderLeest had five tackles and an interception last week at St. Johns, in a game that was tied at halftime before Puffer pulled away with a 24-0 scoring edge in the second half.
“He has a knack defensively for knowing where he needs to be and always ending up around the ball,” explained Kater, who also was the offensive coordinator at Montague during the 2020 season, helping the Wildcats to an undefeated record and the Division 6 championship. “A lot of that stuff you can’t really teach. Because of that, we’re letting him roam around a little bit back there.”
On offense, VanderLeest and fellow senior wideout Clyde Bartee are the Rockets’ home run threats. Kater also lauded the stalk blocking of that duo during the first two games, allowing Ross and junior running back Brody Johnson to find running room downfield.
VanderLeest, who had five touchdown receptions last year en route to first-team all-OK Green honors, had a big game offensively in the opener against Grand Haven, making six catches for 106 yards – highlighted by a 47-yard touchdown reception.
Another storyline going into Friday’s game involves Kater, who played for former Muskegon coach Tony Annese at GRCC and was hired last spring as Muskegon’s offensive coordinator. However, Kater departed shortly thereafter to join former Lowell coach Noel Dean’s staff in Tipton, Ga. Kater then returned to West Michigan on Dec. 31, when he was named Puffer’s new coach.
Kater, 30, is calling the offensive plays for R-P, while his former CMU teammate Alex Smith – who most recently served as head coach at Holton – is the defensive coordinator.
The bigger goal for the Rockets, beyond this week’s showdown at historic Hackley Stadium, is to get into the playoffs and then win a playoff game – something they have not done in 30 years since their memorable, undefeated 1992 season, which ended with a Class A title.
Puffer has qualified for the playoffs five times since that championship season, but each of those postseason appearances were “one and done.”
Kater is encouraged that R-P has enough high school football players to field freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams – something that less than half of the teams in the O-K Green can claim. He also notes that the Rockets have good athletes and numbers in their middle school and youth programs.
He believes this year’s senior leaders like VanderLeest, who hung in there through a 3-6 junior season and a coaching change, will be remembered as the ones who turned the tide.
“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of Tayte yet,” said Kater, the sixth head coach for the Rockets since Hall of Famer Pete Kutches led them to that 1992 title. “We are coaching him extremely hard, and he is getting better. He is a pillar of our team.”
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) Muskegon Reeths-Puffer’s Tayte VanderLeest (5) works to break away from a Grand Haven defender during an opening-night win. (Middle) VanderLeest cuts upfield during the 32-20 victory. (Photos by Joe Lane.)
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.)