By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA — Sam Eggleston has seen high school football from two drastically different viewpoints. Now, even though he is an unpaid volunteer, he enjoys being on the sideline as a coach.
Eggleston just completed his first season as a high school head coach, with Eben Superior Central winning its final three games to finish 4-5 in 8-player football. The Cougars were among the first teams in the state to join the 8-player format in 2010, their first year of football.
Eggleston was a sportswriter before becoming a coach, giving him different perspectives to watching the same event.
The 1998 Rock Mid Peninsula High School graduate worked at newspapers in Escanaba, Kenai, Alaska; Northville and Novi, and Marquette before becoming a freelance writer and website blog editor in 2008. He started the writing phase of his career in 2000 with the Daily Press in Escanaba, under my direction.
He served as a volunteer assistant football coach in Northville, then moved back to the Upper Peninsula and became a volunteer coach at his alma mater in 2011 when the Wolverines went to 8-player football. He joined Superior Central in 2014 and spent two seasons as a volunteer aide until landing the head job just two weeks before the 2016 preseason began.
“In both careers … you took a shot on me and I ran with it, and the same with coaching; they gave me a shot and I’ve run with it as best I can,” he said.
In addition to his unpaid position at Superior Central, in rural Alger County, Eggleston is responsible for fundraising for the self-funded football program, a major priority for his offseason.
“My coaching is over (for the season) now and the majority of my time will be spent on raising funds so we can get new helmets, get new pads to replace ones that are broke, spending money we don’t have so we’ve got to make that up now,” he said. “We have to win now to have successful fundraisers.”
As a sportswriter, Eggleston would simply switch gears and move on to coverage of the next athletic season, for instance once fall sports moved into winter. He also never had to worry about how coaches managed off-field X’s and O’s once their seasons concluded.
Life was totally different as a reporter. “I had a different approach, different viewpoint, different mindset to a game as a writer,” said Eggleston, who still has the heft of when he was a lineman but now looks like a lumberjack with his bushy beard and build.
“Now I have to worry about every kid and every position,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t even see the end result of the play because I’m watching the line play. I don’t even know how well my running back did until I see where they moved the stick.”
He may also be working on an injured player while the game goes on, trying to make play calls and other decisions at the same time.
As a sportswriter, he would be jotting down notes between plays or perhaps checking the result of a picture he took of the previous snap, totally unaware the coach was monitoring several assignments.
“I look back at the writer I was and as a coach now, and I would hate the type of writer I was,” he said.
Eggleston would analyze why a coach would switch to running a sweep rather than the counter that had been working, all while the coach may be working on an injured player that caused a change in offensive plans.
“As a writer I never had the insight to see everything. I just saw the overall game and kept track of every yard,” he said. “As a coach I can’t even tell if the play went five yards because I have three plays stacked up as the game goes on.”
While he was writing sports in the metro Detroit area, his weekly paper often covered games also being covered by the Detroit Free Press or the Oakland Press, with those stories appearing the next day. Eggleston’s story would appear maybe five days later, after everyone knew what happened.
“I had to come in with a different angle. I tried to be a little more analytical and focus on strategy versus the flourish and try to get the meat of the game rather than get to the flowery parts,” he recalled. “I tried to take a different approach and make my stuff more interesting.”
His style apparently worked as the paper received several journalism awards and subscriptions remained strong.
Writing also provided some interesting backdrops. He had to use small charter planes to see some games in Alaska, or get to Nome to handle features about the Iditarod sled dog race.
He recalls covering a high school hockey game on an outdoor rink in Alaska and said “it was the first time I saw wind shear affect a hockey game.”
Eggleston also covered a football game where a kicker booted the ball off the uprights, then off a fence, and it bounced into the ocean in Homer.
He reported on a murder trial at that paper, where he would work the news desk in the morning, take time off and then handle sports at night. “It was super stressful,” he said.
Now walking the sidelines as a coach, he said “it definitely does feel like I’ve seen both sides of the coin, and I understand both sides of them better.”
He remembers just giving “little more rounded answers and (to) give both sides of the story” in postgame interviews. “A lot of coaches give canned answers. I try to be a little more in-depth and help try to write the story.”
In his early days as a sportswriter, he said “I would see the game unfold and see the pressures and why a coach would make a decision to go for it (on fourth down). I was a bit more critical of the coach and their decision,” he said, adding “I would probably have been a little more biting about it when I wrote the story.”
He admits in those days “I thought I knew everything there was to know about football. I played it,” he said. “I always approached the game like I was the professional and knew everything about the game. Now as a coach there are a host of responsibilities during every game. I am in completely different waters now. The hardest thing is keeping the kids pointed in the right direction as things go wrong.
“You’ve got the entire team and you’ve got to keep moving in a positive direction, keep the focus going forward. Forget the last play and work on the next one and get the kids to buy into that philosophy.”
He also compares his first writing assignment at the Daily Press with his first game this season at Ontonagon. “I did a (men’s baseball) story about the Escanaba Polecats, and you read my first line and said, ‘Did Yoda write this?’ I thought, oh my God, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The Cougars lost their opener this fall 36-8, and Eggleston said “after being an assistant for four years, I still wasn’t prepared going into that Ontonagon game. We lost, and as I look back, if we played them right now I think we would beat them.
“I had no clue coming into that first game and didn’t have any idea how to get us back on track.”
He eventually figured enough out to finish 4-5 and found plenty of ways to enjoy being a coach.
Eggleston tries to eat lunch with his players every day, and he pays for his own meal.
“I want a family environment there; we all sit at the same table,” he said. “What I get back is relationships I never had before. I feel like I have 21 kids, and I love every minute of it.”
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Eben Junction Superior Central football coach Sam Eggleston speaks with some of his players during a game this season. (Middle) Eggleston monitors the action on the field. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
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.)