By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA — Gerry Smith put his life into helping area youngsters get a foot into the athletic doorway, and in the process touched the lives of so many people.
“Smitty” died Oct. 15 following a lengthy illness.
“God got a great softball coach,” said retired Gladstone athletic director Matt Houle. “He was unique and old school, but his love for kids and the game always showed clearly. He had such a passion for the game of softball and just loved working with kids.”
Smith, 70, worked at Mead Paper Co. for more than 30 years and was IBEW 979’s business agent for 21 years. But he will perhaps be most remembered for his 43 years on softball and baseball fields throughout the area. He spent 11 years as Gladstone High School’s head softball coach, directing the Braves to MHSAA titles in 2004 and 2009. He was 290-77-1, but missed much of the 2008 season because of shoulder surgery. The Braves were 31-10 under interim manager John Malloch, which would give Smith an overall 321-87-1 record.
“He put a lot of trust into people he asked to help him out,” said Ashley Hughes, who succeeded Smith in 2014 and guided the Braves to the MHSAA Division 3 title that year.
Hughes, who joined Smith on the softball staff when she became a teacher at her alma mater in 2009, also pitched for Smith and the Braves before getting a softball scholarship to Lake Superior State University.
She recalled Smith sought her services when she returned to Gladstone. “Hey kiddo, how about helping us out this year,” is how Hughes remembers that conversation.
He then told her, “I’m going to teach you everything I know and in a few years this will all be yours,” Hughes related.
“For me to come as head coach after Smitty, there was so much pressure. I wanted to live up to everything he had provided for this program,” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to disappoint him. He put a lot of faith in me.”
She said Smith also had an impact when she was a player. “He was so in your face in such a positive light. He wanted you to be successful, whether you had never touched a ball or had the ability to go on to play college ball. He was a spit-fire. He was so intense.
“He just exuded passion, at practice, at games. He had so much love for the game. That is something I’ve held onto because I too loved that game. To have someone like Smitty be so passionate and intense helped me become passionate and gave me the drive to be like that.”
Bill Buchmiller and Smith were partners for 40 years and he became godfather to Buchmiller’s children. In addition to guiding the Braves’ high school varsity, they served as American Legion coaches in the early stages of Gladstone’s program, worked together as Little League coaches and were softball teammates.
“He took a program from nothing to two state championships,” said Buchmiller. “He always encouraged the group. He may have broke them down a little bit but he always built them back up. He was a hard guy to get to know, but once you got to know him, he was a great guy.”
Smith used the knowledge he had gleaned from many years as a player and infused that into his players. “He just dwelled on the basics of softball. If you had to play small ball to win, that is what he played,” said Buchmiller.
“He covered all the different bases of softball. He stressed defense. He told (hitting coach) Al Verbrigghe, ‘You give me one run Al and we’ll win the ball game with my defense. Give me a run and we’ll manage somehow.’”
Theresa Shepeck, who joined Smith on the GHS staff in 2003, agreed with that assessment.
“Smitty always thought the short game was the way to go,” she said. “It was about bunting, not the long ball. You get a runner on one, you bunt her to two. You get somebody on three, then you suicide (bunt) her home.”
Shepeck said his players thrived on his various idiosyncrasies, such as finding tourney lodging in rather inexpensive motels and using a wad of cash to pay for the team’s rooms. “The kids just yukked it up,” she said with a laugh.
“He always put the kids first. If somebody made a mistake, it was never their fault; it is my (Smith’s) fault, the coaching staff’s fault. If one of us coaches made a mistake, he took that blame. It was always his fault, his responsibility,” said Shepeck.
The players appreciated how he used them in games and practices. “His philosophy was to put the best nine on the field, period,” she said. “He walked on a lot of toes, he had a lot of hurt feelings (of parents), but I think the kids respected that. Nobody ever doubted how they fit in. He was there to win.
“He was a little man (about 5-foot-6) but had a huge heart. He was all about the kids and the coaching staff. It was an honor to learn from him, to be in his presence, to be a mentor to the kids.”
Hughes agreed, noting “he had a way of figuring out what the team needs are and re-arranging the players (duties). He knew the players’ strengths and was always looking out for the entire team.”
Smith’s career record likely could have included more wins if he didn’t use the season’s first month to shuffle personnel while building for the postseason. It paid off when it counted the most as the Braves reached at least the Quarterfinal level each of his 11 seasons.
“He was definitely not afraid to experiment,” said Hughes. “He knew the rules of the game and he was always looking for more (from his players). He was an aggressive coach, and the girls who love the sport really grasped at that. He utilized every player on his roster.
“He didn’t have to say too much, but you always wanted to answer him and make him proud and prove to him that you can come through.”
Houle summed up Smith’s legacy when he said, “He was the person that put Gladstone High School on the map in high school activities. He will be dearly missed by so many. He touched so many lives.”
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) Gladstone High School softball manager Gerry Smith holds the Division 3 championship trophy after the Braves won the 2009 title in Battle Creek. Smith, who also led the Braves to the 2004 crown, died Oct. 15. (Middle) Smith talks with catcher Jordan Kowalski at a practice prior to the 2011 Division 3 Semifinals. (Photos courtesy of Escanaba Daily Press.)
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.)