By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
This first week of the 41st MHSAA Football Playoffs will be filled with firsts and familiar faces.
Benton Harbor, Detroit Cesar Chavez Academy and Parma Western will take part in the first playoff games in their football programs’ histories. Ten more teams will be making their first postseason appearance in more than a decade.
Beal City will enjoy the playoffs for the 33rd time, most of any MHSAA school and one of 18 that have appeared in the tournament at least 25 seasons. Rockford will play in its 21st straight playoffs and Menominee in its 20th, those two enjoying the two longest active streaks. Eight of nine champions return from 2014 – and Clarkston, Grand Rapids West Catholic and Muskegon Catholic Central hope to be playing in five weeks for their third straight MHSAA titles.
But first things first – below are some of the most intriguing openers, all to be played Friday, unless noted. Keep up with the MHSAA Score Center all weekend as scores come in, and check out the Football Page for up-to-date pairings and scores by division.
Clarkston (7-2) at Romeo (8-1)
A 1-2 start – albeit, with losses to eventual league champions Macomb Dakota and West Bloomfield – knocked Clarkston out of most conversations about the state’s elite this season, despite the Wolves coming off back-to-back Division 1 titles. But Clarkston won its next six games – including over playoff team Oak Park last week – and drew a Romeo team that started 8-0, beat Dakota by two touchdowns, but is coming off an unexpected three-point loss to Utica Eisenhower in Week 9.
Others that caught my eye: Grandville (6-3) at Rockford (6-3), Plymouth (6-3) at Northville (9-0), Ann Arbor Pioneer (6-3) at Belleville (8-1), Utica Eisenhower (6-3) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (7-2).
Muskegon (7-2) at Traverse City Central (9-0)
Traverse City Central is undefeated for the first time since its Class A championship season of 1988, and at home, hosting a team with a few hours of road time ahead. And yet, it’s fair to assume most will consider the Trojans underdogs against a Muskegon program that has finished each of the last three seasons at Ford Field. The Big Reds are back in Division 2 after finishing Division 3 runner-up a year ago, and have lost only to Detroit Catholic Central and Muskegon Mona Shores – a possible opponent next week for the winner of this game.
Others that caught my eye: Midland (7-2) at Midland Dow (8-1). Farmington Hills Harrison (7-2) at Birmingham Groves (9-0), Lincoln Park (6-3) at Wyandotte Roosevelt (7-2), Detroit East English (7-2) at Warren DeLaSalle (6-3).
Grand Rapids Christian (5-4) at East Grand Rapids (6-3)
The Pioneers held a 26-0 lead in the first matchup between these Ottawa-Kent Conference White rivals, in Week 6, before the Eagles outscored them 39-7 the rest of the way. The math worked out such that East Grand Rapids is the host this time after Christian qualified with an at-large bid, and it's fair to expect another close tilt between teams that have split their last eight meetings, including two during the playoffs.
Others that caught my eye: Haslett (6-3) at DeWitt (8-1), Parma Western (6-3) at Coldwater (9-0), Ortonville-Brandon (6-3) at Linden (7-2), Warren Fitzgerald (6-3) at Redford Thurston (5-4).
Flint Powers Catholic (7-2) at Goodrich (7-2)
Both of these teams should be among the most prepared to up their games for the postseason. Powers quietly put together one of the most solid defensive performances in the state, giving up only 101 points total while shutting out four teams and finishing second to Division 2 contender Midland Dow in the Saginaw Valley League Blue. Goodrich emerged as one of five playoff teams from the seven-team Genesee Area Conference Red and played two more playoff teams nonleague, so it too is used to playoff-caliber competition.
Others that caught my eye: Dowagiac (6-3) at Benton Harbor (5-4), Big Rapids (6-3) at Escanaba (5-4), Detroit Denby (5-4) at Detroit Collegiate Prep (9-0), Harper Woods Chandler Park (6-3) at Detroit Country Day (8-1), Saturday.
Marine City (6-3) at Almont (7-2)
With its proximity to Port Huron, it’s easy to forget that Marine City plays in the Macomb Area Conference Gold and not the Blue Water Area Conference, and actually has faced BWAC power Almont only once over the last 65 seasons – in a District Final a year ago. Both have deceiving records this time around; Marine City’s three losses were by a combined 12 points to three playoff teams, while Almont’s two defeats came by a combined 15 points to two playoff qualifiers (both fell to Algonac).
Others that caught my eye: Muskegon Oakridge (7-2) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (7-2), Hillsdale (6-3) at Buchanan (9-0), Clinton Township Clintondale (5-4) at Algonac (8-1), Harrison (7-2) at Kingsford (6-3), Saturday.
Clinton (9-0) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-1)
Division 6 might have the most intriguing set of opening games, topped by this matchup of the reigning champion Falcons against one of two undefeated teams that finds itself on the road this week. This is a rematch of last season’s District Final, won by St. Mary; in 2013 it was Clinton that reached Ford Field and finished runner-up in Division 6. St. Mary’s earned this home game with a schedule loaded with Class A and B teams, but that doesn’t mean Clinton doesn’t know how to ramp up for good competition – the Redskins are one of four playoff teams from the Tri-County Conference.
Others that caught my eye: Vassar (8-1) at Ithaca (9-0), Millington (8-1) at Sanford Meridian (9-0), Calumet (7-2) at Negaunee (7-2), Jackson Lumen Christi (6-3) at Vandercook Lake (8-1).
Saugatuck (9-0) at Hesperia (9-0)
Matchups of undefeated teams in the first round are rare, but so is having three undefeated teams in the same District, which these two share with Pewamo-Westphalia. Hesperia is one of the incredible stories of this season. The Panthers, known best for their wrestling, were 1-8 a year ago and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2002 – but did have four 0-9 seasons during the drought. Only once this fall, in Week 4 against Morley-Stanwood, did an opponent come within 25 points of Hesperia. But Saugatuck has been both impressive and consistent on offense, scoring no fewer than 42 points in any game and beating their opponents by an average of 48.
Others that caught my eye: Flint Hamady (7-2) at Flint Beecher (6-2), Cass City (7-2) at Ubly (7-2), Concord (7-2) at Dansville (8-1), Harbor Springs (6-3) at Iron Mountain (6-3), Saturday.
Mendon (5-4) at Climax-Scotts (9-0)
A first-round game between an at-large qualifier and an undefeated host is generally viewed as a slam dunk for the home team. But it’s doubtful anyone recently has considered Mendon and its eight straight seasons with at least 10 wins an easy out. The four losses this fall were all to playoff teams, three now playing in higher divisions. Climax-Scotts has seen its last four seasons end against the Hornets and is the last team that would take them lightly, even after giving up a total of only 27 points this season.
Others that caught my eye: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-3) at Muskegon Catholic Central (6-2), Bark River-Harris (7-2) at Munising (7-2), Ottawa Lake Whiteford (7-2) at Petersburg-Summerfield (7-2), Crystal Falls Forest Park (5-3) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (9-0), Saturday.
Rapid River (6-3) at Engadine (7-2)
Engadine’s Week 5 62-30 win over Rapid River sent a shockwave through 8-player football, as it was Rapid River’s first regular-season loss since 2012. The Eagles still haven’t lost since Week 3, with only Stephenson coming reasonably close to taking a game. But the short history of 8-player football in this state has shown that this division allows more than any other for massive turnarounds between the regular-season and playoff meetings between teams – and Rapid River knows well the possibility this weekend after beating Cedarville 20-19 during the 2014 regular season and then falling to the Trojans 28-0 five weeks later in a Regional Final.
Others that caught my eye: Cedarville (7-2) at Owendale-Gagetown (9-0), Peck (7-2) at Deckerville (8-1).
PHOTO: Montrose, carrying the ball, earned an at-large bid to its 23rd MHSAA Playoffs as one of five qualifiers from the Genesee Area Conference Red.
SOUTHFIELD — Normally, having students come up and say they won’t be in school the next day might have a school administrator seething and ready to reserve seats in the detention room.
But if there ever was a time to allow it, this was the moment.
Following a 36-32 upset of Belleville that stunned many around the state in the MHSAA Division 1 Football Final on Nov. 26, Southfield Arts & Technology senior quarterback Isaiah Marshall said he and other players made it known, “Don’t expect us in school on Monday.”
After all, the game was played and ended late on a Sunday night, the team achieved something nobody else in the community had done, and there were celebrations that needed to begin.
And for the record, the players were back in school Tuesday.
Whether it’s been in school or outside the halls of Southfield A&T, it’s been a week of historic celebrations and congratulations after the Warriors captured the first MHSAA Finals championship in school history.
Marshall said that remained the case when he attended the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday.
“Everywhere I go, there is someone congratulating me,” he said.
Over their final decades before the schools merged in 2016, Southfield High School and Southfield-Lathrup High School had plenty of talented teams with numerous players who went on to play big-time college football and even in the NFL.
But none of those good teams was able to advance to a state championship game, let alone win it all.
“There was a lot of people that texted me and talked to me and said they graduated from the 1980s,” said Marshall, pointing out that one former player who reached out was Nic Jones, currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs who graduated from Southfield High. “There were a lot of older people that used to go to Southfield that told me that they couldn’t do the job. They were proud of us that we could do it for them.”
Marshall said that after the game was over Sunday, he and other teammates congregated at his house at 3 a.m. to watch a replay of the game.
It was only the first time this week the replay was watched.
“We watched it that day and the day after,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve been watching it the whole week.”
A parade Saturday will start at noon at the building that housed the old Southfield-Lathrup and finish at the current school, which was the home of Southfield High before the merger. A&T then will host a celebration in the school gymnasium from 1:15-2:30 p.m.
Players will certainly soak it all in while they can, because it won’t be long before they split up.
Marshall will soon sign to play in college for Kansas and will be enrolling early there. He plans to take his last final exams at Southfield A&T next week and head to Lawrence the first week of January.
Teammate Jalen Todd will do the same as he is also committed to Kansas, while Tashi Braceful will enroll early at Toledo.
But long after this year, it’s a group that won’t be forgotten in the community, or the state after it pulled off the upset of a Belleville team that was riding a 38-game winning streak and was two-time reigning Division 1 champion.
No doubt, future reunions should be memorable and festive.
Even Marshall admitted his still rubs his eyes in amazement over what his team did.
“Yes, I still do,” he said.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T players enjoy the first moments after their Division 1 championship win at Ford Field. (Middle) The A&T band plays during a break in the action. (Below) Fans celebrate in the stands during the victory over Belleville. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)