By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
When Kris Hubbard was asked to coach the fledgling Ottawa Lake Whiteford softball team in the late 1970s, the first person she went to for advice was her neighbor, Kay Johnson.
Johnson, who already had been coaching the Morenci softball team for about five years, wrote down a couple of pages worth of tips, from offensive situations for practice to drills for outfielders. Those golden rules given from one friend to another helped build the foundation for Hubbard’s career that has spanned 40 years, more than 800 wins and three MHSAA Finals championships.
“I wanted to start a softball program and I said to her, ‘Okay, what do I need to do?’” Hubbard recalls. “I think I still have it. It was a pretty good list.”
“I got her started,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that I taught her a lot.”
Johnson graduated from Whitmer High School in Toledo in 1968 and Adrian College in 1972. She lived in Sylvania, Ohio, only a couple of miles from Whiteford High School, and accepted a teaching and coaching job at Morenci. She coached volleyball, basketball, softball and track. Her 1976 Bulldogs track & field team won the Lower Peninsula Class D championship.
Hubbard grew up in Blissfield and played college basketball at Western Michigan University, graduating in 1973. After college she accepted a teaching job at Whiteford and early on was coaching track, volleyball and basketball for the Bobcats. After the 1978 track season, Hubbard stepped down as head coach for that team. It was then that some of the Whiteford girls came to her and asked if she would be interested in coaching them in a new sport at the school – softball.
“I had played fast-pitch softball, but I didn’t know all of the little things kids needed to know,” Hubbard said. “That’s why I went to her.”
Johnson and Hubbard had met a few years earlier when Johnson was playing on a Toledo city league recreation basketball team. Her team needed more players and her uncle told her about Hubbard, who, come to find out, was a distant relative. The two didn’t know each other, but they lived about a long fly ball from each other at the Michigan-Ohio border.
“My mom’s brother was married to her grandma’s sister,” Johnson said. “We didn’t know each other. I was at Thanksgiving and my uncle said I should call her for the basketball team.”
“So, I talked with her and I thought maybe we could ride together,” Hubbard recalls. “I asked where she lived. Turns out, she lived on the first street into Ohio (across the state line) and I lived on the first street in Michigan. … We have a lot in common. Both of us like sports and have similar interests. We’ve been friends ever since.”
They’ve been more than just rivals in different dugouts. When Hubbard was getting married in the 1980s, she moved in with Johnson after her house sold. For years they have traveled to softball coaching clinics together, even making a presentation on softball drills at least once. This past winter they vacationed together.
“She’s been a good friend,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard had never coached softball but was a fast learner. Her first three Bobcats teams won Tri-County Conference championships from 1979-81. In 1984, the Bobcats won their first of three Class D championships over the next four years.
Ironically, only one of those state title teams won a league championship. That’s because Tri-County Conference opponent Summerfield won the Class C title in 1984 and Johnson’s Morenci team won Class C titles in 1985 and 1986.
The league has been a softball powerhouse from the start. Since 1984, Summerfield and Whiteford have three MHSAA Finals titles each and Morenci and Clinton two apiece. Numerous TCC teams have reached the Semifinals or played in championship games. Whiteford, for example, played in the 2017 Division 4 Final and Morenci in the 2016 Semifinals.
“There have been some good coaches in the TCC, and I’m not talking about us,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard has 11 TCC titles to her credit, including the 2017 win. Robert Taylor (Summerfield) has eight league titles, Johnson seven and Al Roberts (Clinton) five.
The league has also been home to some tremendous talent. Summerfield’s Michelle Bolster played at Indiana University. Whiteford’s Leigh Ross was an All-American at the University of Toledo, later coached at Syracuse and is now a softball analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. Morenci pitcher Renae Merillat was an All-American at Hillsdale College. Summerfield’s Melissa Taylor claimed the statewide Miss Softball Award as the top position player in 1997.
Johnson entered 2018 with 889 career victories, Hubbard with 813, putting them both near the top of the MHSAA softball coaching wins list. Johnson has more than any softball coach in Lenawee County history, while Hubbard passed Monroe’s Vince Rossi last year to become the winningest softball coach in Monroe County history. This year, both teams are in a loaded Division 4 District that includes Britton Deerfield, Summerfield and Sand Creek.
“There have been times where the District is tougher than Regional,” Hubbard said.
Johnson said both she and Hubbard have the same philosophy when it comes to the regular season – throw out the records and build a team that can contend for an MHSAA championship.
“Our league prepares us for the District tournament,” she said. “We both put teams on our schedule that are going to challenge us. I’d rather lose 3-1 then win 15-0. Winning 15-0 does nothing. It doesn’t teach anything.”
Morenci was a member of the Lenawee County Athletic Association before joining the TCC in the early 1980s. That meant the two friends would be coaching against each other at least twice a year.
“We’ve done it enough now that it’s just another league game,” Johnson said.
It’s no accident the two have similar coaching styles and strategy when it comes to developing pitchers, bunting at key situations in a game and advancing runners.
“We talk about softball a lot, just not about playing each other. That’s not exactly fun,” Hubbard said. “I think we are both pretty laid back. To coach as long as we have, you have to be.”
The game has changed over the years – the ball itself is much different than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The home run was rare 20 years ago but is now part of the game, something Johnson isn’t thrilled about.
“I hate the home run in fast-pitch,” she said. “I want doubles, triples and relays from the outfield. I want action. You work your defense. I want them to be able to show off. The bats have really livened up the game.”
Hubbard wants to coach the Bobcats at least one more year after this season. This spring her team has seven players back, including its top pitcher, from last year’s runner-up finish. Most are only juniors. She smiles easily when talking about ex-players and their after-school successes.
“I love Facebook for one reason – you get to follow a lot of your former athletes,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of them who are really successful in life. That’s what it is all about. It’s a game. Softball is just a game. It’s (a small part) of your life. If you turn out all right, that’s what it is about.”
Johnson used to identify pitching prospects while teaching physical education at Morenci. She was later a principal and now is athletic director at Morenci along with softball coach.
“It’s sustained over the years,” Johnson said of the program. “We’ve had our low years. One year we only won five games. But, program-wise, year-in and year-out, we bring out the quality kids. They know the expectations. They have a high grade-point average. When you are getting those quality kids out, you know they are going to give you a good effort.”
Johnson and Hubbard will square off this season May 22 in a doubleheader at Whiteford. Before the game, which will be the 106th and 107th meetings between the two all-time, Hubbard will put a Snapple in the dugout for Johnson. Neither coach is interested in knowing who has the upper hand when it comes to the head-to-head series.
“You don’t get real fired up about it,” Hubbard said. “For those two hours I want to kick her butt and she wants to kick mine. We are going to be friends no matter what.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Morenci’s Kay Johnson encourages her next hitter as a runner reaches third base. (Middle) Ottawa Lake Whiteford’s Kris Hubbard surveys the field during Wednesday’s sweep of Petersburg Summerfield. (Photos by Mike Dickie and Angela Link, respectively.)
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.)