DETROIT — State champions.
Finally. And again.
Kingsley used a bulldozer ground game to pound Almont’s defense and emerge with a 38-24 victory in Saturday’s Division 6 football state championship game at Ford Field in Detroit, bringing home the program’s second state crown 18 years after its first.
“I’m just kind of shocked, honestly,” said senior linebacker Max Goethals, who tied Jon Whims as the team’s leading tackler with five. “A bunch of my teammates ran over, they had tears rolling down their eyes, saying, ‘We did it!’ It hasn’t hit me yet, but I probably won’t sleep the rest of the night.”
The Stags ran the ball 59 times for 331 yards, led by Eli Graves’ record-setting day.
Kingsley won the 2005 state championship over Monroe St. Mary in the finals’ first year at the Detroit Lions’ new stadium at the time, Ford Field.
Kinglsey head coach Tim Wooer wore a Sgt. Justin Hansen shirt with “USA” on the front and Hansen’s name and number across the back during his team’s championship win. Hansen was a captain on Wooer’s 2002 Kingsley team and was later killed in action in Afghanistan while serving with the United States Marine Corps on July 24, 2012.
“If his team would’ve won a state championship, he would have been sitting right next to me,” Wooer said. “Just a fabulous, fabulous human being. Just full throttle, incredible work ethic.”
At the postgame press conference, Wooer had assistant coach Connor Schueller sit next to him. Schueller, a former Kingsley fullback whose mother Trina passed away two years ago from COVID-19, celebrated his 20th birthday by holding the state championship trophy.
“There’s a shift where you’re supposed to be the role model,” Wooer said, holding back tears. “You’re supposed to be the role model for players, and you’re supposed to teach them everything. Then, there comes a time when your players teach you about life. Justin Hansen did that, for sure. So did Connor Schueller. Two pretty important people in our lives and our community.”
It was only the second meeting in 355 state championship games since 1975 featuring two teams with orange and black colors. The first was Belding against Chesaning for the 1998 Class B crown, won 41-38 by Chesaning.
As such, Kingsley (12-2) wore its road whites with orange helmets. Almont (12-2) wore its home black jerseys with black helmets.
The Raiders saw a lot of the back of Graves’ white jersey.
The senior running back ran 33 times for 210 yards (29th in state finals history) and four touchdowns (tied for second).
“He’s a good player downhill,” Almont senior linebacker Ayden Ferqueron said of Graves. “Not much more to say than that. He’s hard to stop.”
Kingsley didn’t punt in the game and only turned the ball over on downs once. The Stags scored touchdowns on five of six possessions that didn’t end with the clock at zeroes.
Wooer also coached the Stags in 2005 in his first stint at his alma mater. He coached at TC West for 10 years in between Kingsley runs.
When Wooer mentioned he often gets asked which championship team is better, Graves immediately pointed to himself and his teammates at the podium.
Almont struck in the third quarter to cut the Stags’ lead to 22-17, then forced Kingsley’s first non-scoring drive. The Stags defense matched, forcing a punt of their own.
Merchant hit Chase Bott for a 35-yard touchdown, with the 6-foot-6 Bott stiff-arming an Almont defender the final several yards into the end zone on the fourth quarter’s first play. Workman ran in the conversion for a 30-17 advantage.
Almont mustered a seven-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter that included its first two pass completions, including one to Cole Walton for a 17-yard touchdown. O’Neil’s extra point drew the Raiders within six, 30-24, with 7:55 remaining.
Kingsley responded with a 10-play drive, extended by a Merchant 16-yard pass to Goethals on 3rd-and-10. Merchant also drew a roughing the passer penalty to set the Stags up inside the 20.
“Of course, I have my favorite play, 41 Michigan Pass, but he refused to call it,” Merchant joked. “So we all agreed on X Pass. That’s Max over the middle with Chase (Bott) trying to take a defender off of him.”
In a game with only 12 total passes, Kingsley completed one to help salt the game away.
“We only ran in a couple of times, but they never throw it to me,” Goethals said. “I don’t know why, but I knew I had to get it.”
Graves scored his fourth touchdown of the day, adding in a two-point conversion run to make the score 38-24 and tie the state record for most points in a football state championship game with 30.
Almont won the coin toss and deferred. Giving the Stags the ball to start might not have been the wisest idea.
Kingsley started off with a dominating 10-play drive, all on the ground, in which every play went for at least 3 yards. That ended with a Graves 3-yard plunge from a straight I formation 3:57 into the game. Almont stopped the conversion run.
The Stags followed that up with a 13-play, 85-yard drive concluding with a Graves 30-yard TD run that had the Kingsley student section chanting, “You can’t stop us!!”
Almont’s Sean O’Neil kicked a 28-yard field goal to trim the lead to 14-3 before Kingsley responded with another grinding drive, covering 65 yards in 11 plays for Graves’ third TD of the day from 5 yards out. The Stags’ conversion pass to Graves was initially ruled out of bounds, but with instant replay, Graves dragged his left foot in bounds a split second before the right landed out of bounds, giving Kingsley a 22-3 lead.
The Raiders used a Luke Winkler 80-yard kickoff return to score their first touchdown on 4th-and-goal after the Stags stopped them from the 5 for three plays.
Graves came into the game needing 245 yards to reach 2,000 for the season and gained 149 in the first half.
By halftime, the Stags’ backup running tandem of Skylar Workman and Kolsen Orton produced more rush yards (72) than Almont had total offense (63). The pair ended with 123 rush yards, just short of Almont’s 174 total yards.
“Offensively, we usually move the ball pretty well,” Almont head coach James Leusby said. “They stopped those few plays. We had to punt, and they didn’t have to. That’s really what it came down to.”
Kingsley had several guest coaches on the sidelines. Jason Morrow, who was Wooer’s defensive coordinator at Traverse City West and also served on his staffs in Farwell and Kingsley, joined the team.
So did former Almont head coach Jeremy Ferman, a former roommate of Wooers and assistant coach with him at Farwell out of college. Former Stag and line coach Tom Kaleita signed with the Detroit Lions in 2005, the same year Kingsley won its only other title.
“When you get people around like that, it’s not about Almont or Gladstone or Reed City,” Wooer said. “It’s about gathering football knowledge, people that have an eye and have insight. And we’re going to surround ourselves with the best people.”
Ferman took Almont’s team to Wooer’s Wing-T camp every year at Almont.
The Wing-T took the Raiders on a ride they didn’t want Saturday.
Kingsley produced sustained long drives of 10, 13 and 11 plays on its first three possessions.
“Our O-linemen did a great job getting off the ball,” said Workman, who ran for 68 yards on 12 carries.
Kingsley didn’t have a run play produce less than 3 yards the entire first half, outside of Merchant’s kneel to end the half.
Bode Bielas and Grant Kolbusz also helped lead the Kingsley defense. Kolbusz recovered an Almont fumble forced by Workman on Almont’s kick return with 2:13 remaining that allowed the Stags to run out the clock with several Graves runs and Merchant kneeldown.
Almont center Yousif Abu-joudeh (6-1, 270) didn’t play, giving both teams five active players from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association’s Division 6 All-Region team. Abu-joudeh was also on the All-Region team, while the Stags had lineman Caleb Bott, Graves, Merchant, James Pearson and Goethals on the squad.
DETROIT — State champions.