MHSA(Q&)A: Stevensville-Lakeshore wrestling coach Bruce Bittenbender

February 9, 2012

Bruce Bittenbender grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., in the heart of steel country, and worked part-time in a mill as a young adult. That helped land him in Michigan City, Ind., not long after graduating from Milligan College in Tennessee in 1969.

But Bittenbender wanted to teach and coach.

Bittenbender took a teaching job at South Haven that fall, and as an assistant coach helped that school's wrestling team to the MHSAA Class B championship. A year later the wrestling coaching job opened at Stevensville Lakeshore. He says now that he was too young for the job, but Bittenbender applied and was hired. The program was struggling at that point -- but not for much longer.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations' record book, Bittenbender trailed only Rex Peckinpaugh of New Castle, Ind., in career dual coaching wins heading into this season (796-780). Bittenbender won his 800th match on Jan. 14 -- and has his team just two more victories from MHSAA Finals weekend Feb. 24-25 in Battle Creek.

Bittenbender retired from teaching two years ago after 35 teaching biology and seven more physical education. At 64, he still gets on the mat with his wrestlers from time to time, although perhaps not as much as he once did. But countless wrestlers -- including those who won a combined 20 individual championships -- have benefited from his instruction.

His coaching tree includes current Rockford coach Brian Richardson and former Lowell coach Dave Strejc, who led teams to MHSAA Division 2 championships in 2002 and 2004. Bittenbender was named National Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2002 and again by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association in 2010. He is a member of the Michigan Wrestling Association Hall of Fame, and he will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame this spring.

Stevensville Lakeshore is ranked No. 7 in Division 2. His team won its District on Tuesday, downing St. Joseph 35-34 with a decision win in the final match.

What keeps you coming back for another season?

Every year, when you think you've seen it all, something else comes up. When I was in middle school, it was junior high school back then, I was on the edge. The coach (Jim McIntyre, who went on to coach at Kutztown University) grabbed me on the back of the neck and said, "What are you doing?" I was hanging out with kids of questionable character, and he said, "You need to come out for wrestling." I still go back and play golf with that guy once in a while. ... I came from a big family. We didn't have much. I have empathy for the kids that were kicked around, misdirected. Somebody took time out for me. I felt maybe I could kick some of that back.

After so many wins, do you still enjoy all of them the same?

I tell ya, last night I certainly enjoyed the win. It was just like I was 23 again. Yeah, I enjoy it. It's addictive. That's what you're out there for.

The NFHS changed its wrestling weight classes this season, but Michigan chose to stay with its current lineup. What is your thought on that switch?

I think it's going to switch back. It makes no sense to me. The average kid graduating from high school is 5-(foot-)9, 155 pounds. Why add a weight class at the top where you have to compete for kids with football and basketball. … Our sport has prided itself on giving the little guy a chance. ... He can be a state champ in wrestling.

Your teams have finished MHSAA Finals runner-up twice. How much would you like to win that first championship?

I would love to. That's the ultimate goal. We've been so close. We were up three points in '94, and got pinned at heavyweight (to lose 28-25 to Fowlerville). In '86 we broke the record for individual number of points scored, but Eaton Rapids broke it too. We were that close.

I'm assuming you're not going to stop coaching any time soon.

Being around people and the community, and working with kids, it keeps you young. Keeps you in shape, keeps you motivated. I think that's one of the reasons. Now that I'm not teaching, my wife and I are able to travel quite a bit in the fall and summer. I think that's basically a motivator, just being around people.

What do you tell, or would you tell, young coaches who are just getting started in high school wrestling?

I tell them to be careful the first few years. It's different today. … I tell coaches you need to set up standards, discipline, goals and objectives, and go by those. You try to accommodate some of these kids, and this and that, but you can go only so far. You’ve gotta stick to the rules and let the cards fall where they are. If you don't, you'll have problems down the line.

And I think communicating with people, making friends, getting out there and strumming up support for the program is important too. I've had the opportunity to speak to the Lions Club, various civic organizations, at hospitals. You have to try to make yourself available. People have to learn to put their trust in you."

Football Title Reflects Kingsley's Current Success, Recalls Loved Ones Passed

By Tom Spencer
Special for

December 1, 2023

Kingsley football fans have become pretty familiar with VIP parking for home games over the last couple of seasons.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThey 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.

Stags assistant coach Conner Schueller watches from the sideline during an Almont run back.“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. 

Kingsley coach Tim Wooer, in red, prepares to present the championship trophy to his team including Schueller, far right.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.’

Trina’s Touchdown Club welcomes members to the VIP lot adjacent to the Kingsley stadium. “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 SpencerTom 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.)