By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The pictures we drew Sunday morning at the MHSAA office won’t be found hanging on anyone’s walls.
But we worked toward something suitable for framing, designing this season’s football playoff brackets while considering the months and years of work put in by our schools and their teams, parents and fans to earn an opportunity to continue their seasons this weekend.
The work completed today to draw up the 2014 MHSAA Football Playoffs began long before opening night in August. Our football tournament is like none other sponsored by the MHSAA – it’s the only team tournament in which every team doesn’t qualify – and we began talking about this tournament not long after last season’s champions were decided.
Then came April and May and tracking down schedules for 613 MHSAA varsity football teams, plus 45 out-of-state opponents our Michigan schools were set to play including 14 from Ontario and one from Minnesota.
The fun part was monitoring the scores and standings for all of these teams over the nine weeks of the regular season, each Friday night a stream of chatter from kickoff into our weekly highlights show on Fox Sports Detroit.
And then came Sunday – and navigating the most difficult maps to draw in my four seasons assisting in the process.
We often have versions “a” and “b” and on occasion “c” when considering which best accomplishes our goal – to create the correct geographical picture for each of eight 11-player divisions and our 8-player bracket.
Sunday morning, we saw a version “e” for the first time I can remember and some shapes that didn’t make much sense without explanation.
Some of those explanations are below – the stories behind how we made some of the toughest decisions. I start with a quick history lesson you can skip if you’re familiar with this annual report or our playoff selection process in general, then move into some of the specifics many will be discussing this week as they begin focusing on their Pre-District opponents. (Click for the full schedule.)
Our past: The MHSAA playoff structure – with 256 teams in eight divisions, and six wins equaling an automatic berth (or five wins for teams playing eight or fewer games) – debuted in 1999. An 8-player tournament was added in 2011, resulting in nine champions total each season.
The first playoffs were conducted in 1975 with four champions. Four more football classes were added in 1990 for a total of eight champions each fall. Through 1998, only 128 teams made the postseason, based on their playoff point averages within regions (four for each class) that were drawn before the beginning of the season. The drawing of Districts and Regions after the end of the regular season did not begin until the most recent playoff expansion.
In early years of the current process, lines were drawn by hand. Dots representing qualifying schools were pasted on maps, one map for each division, and those maps were then covered by plastic sheets. Districts and Regionals literally were drawn with dry-erase markers.
Our present: After a late Saturday night tracking scores, we file in as the sun rises Sunday morning for a final round of gathering results we may still need (which can include making a few early a.m. calls to athletic directors). Re-checking and triple-checking of enrollments, what schools played in co-ops and opted to play as a higher class start a week in advance, and more numbers are crunched Sunday morning as the fields are set.
This season, there were 229 automatic qualifiers by win total – with the final 27 at-large then selected, by playoff-point average, one from each class in order (A, B, C, D) until the field is filled.
Those 256 11-player teams are then split into eight equal divisions based on enrollment, and their locations are marked on digital maps that are projected on wall-size screens and then discussed by nearly half of the MHSAA staff plus a representative from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association. Only the locations themselves are marked (by yellow dots) – not records, playoff point averages or names of the schools or towns. In fact, mentions of those are strictly prohibited. Records and playoff points are not part of the criteria. Matchups, rivalries, previous playoff pairings, etc. also DO NOT come into play.
The same process is followed for organizing the 8-player bracket, with the difference that the 16 teams are selected purely on playoff-point average.
Geography rules: This long has been rule number one for drawing MHSAA brackets in any sport, and is a repeat as well for those who have read this report the last three Octobers. Travel distance and ease DO come into play. Jumping on a major highway clearly is easier than driving across county-wide back roads, and that’s taken into consideration. Also, remember there’s only one Mackinac Bridge and hence only one way to cross between peninsulas – and boats are not considered a possible form of transportation. When opponents from both peninsulas will be in the same District, distance to the bridge is far more important than as the bird flies.
Tradition doesn’t reign: Every group of 32 dots is a new group – these 32 teams have not been placed in a bracket together before. That said, how maps have been drawn in the past isn’t considered – it’s hard to say a division has been drawn in a certain way traditionally when this set of 32 teams is making up a division for the first time.
Observations and answers: 2014
Class A ripple: A total of 80 Class A teams qualified for the playoffs in 2013 after three seasons of 79 each. But 89 Class A teams are part of the 2014 field, and that increase in turn shifted a number of smaller schools into different divisions – including some annual favorites. Muskegon, Division 2 runner-up the last two seasons, is in Division 3. Marine City, last season’s Division 4 champion, will play in Division 5. Five-time Division 5 champ Jackson Lumen Christi moved into Division 6, where it could be the toughest obstacle as Ithaca attempts to win that division for the fifth straight season.
Stranger on paper: Yes, Division 1’s District 2 stretches from Grandville to Hartland. This isn’t a desirable outcome, but was necessary with this field. Six districts are filled with teams all east of U.S. 23, and a seventh is completely north and west of Grand Rapids. That left the four teams in the middle – Grandville, East Kentwood, Grand Ledge and Hartland.
Something similar came down in the 8-player bracket – why would we break up four teams in the Thumb to include three with Big Rapids Crossroads Academy all the way west of U.S. 127? It had to do with creating the appropriate semifinal matchup for whichever team emerges from the Rapid River/Cedarville/Engadine/Bellaire regional; keeping the Thumb teams together might’ve meant Lawrence or Waldron from near the Indiana border going all the way to Rapid River instead of Thumb teams that are still far away but closer to the convenient highways.
Line falls through Warren: Division 2 presented a few challenges. There are five districts made up of schools predominantly in the Greater Detroit and Port Huron areas, so one was going to end up potentially matching up farther from home. At first we drew a region across the bottom of the Lower Peninsula that connected teams from the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area with a district from Ypsilanti and south of Detroit. But rearranging districts to draw a line between Warren DeLaSalle and Warren Counsino, although they’re nearly neighbors, helped make the rest of the map much cleaner – and eliminated that I-94 Regional we didn’t prefer.
Deconstructing D3: This was another toughie given the locations of teams involved. Three districts are all east of U.S. 23 and south of Pontiac, and four more are all west and/or north of Greater Lansing. Usually the Lansing area has a large share of Division 3 qualifiers – but not this season. So that left five schools somewhat without a sure home – St. Johns, DeWitt, Mason, Tecumseh and Linden. DeWitt is much closer to Mason and even Tecumseh, with the differences between St. Johns and DeWitt to Linden and St. Johns and DeWitt to Grand Rapids small enough to cancel out in the big picture.
Stretching Division 6: In the end, this map looks good – but there was a lot of conversation. The tough part was finding the fairest possible situation for whichever district champ might end up playing Negaunee – Bad Axe in the Thumb, Madison Heights Madison or Warren Michigan Collegiate as possibilities coming out of northern Detroit, or even Fennville near Lake Michigan south of Holland. Proximity to I-75 helped make this decision.
Crisscrossing Division 8: Figuring out this bracket started out easy enough with eight teams in the Upper Peninsula or just south of Mackinac Bridge and with the southwest and southeast Lower Peninsula set. But a group of 10 across the top of the Lower Peninsula – including neighbors Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, Beal City and Coleman – made this interesting. A rule of thumb is we don’t want a team passing through a different district or regional to reach its opponent – and with three teams so closely bunched, that was a challenge in drawing this one out.
At the end of the day ...
What you see is what our committee decided upon after multiple discussions among multiple groups that broke down every sensible possibility we could muster. There are certainly points open to argument – and we likely made those arguments as well.
In the end, we present a group of dots on a map – as stated above, we don’t identify the schools until after the groupings are drawn. Part of the fun is then finding out what first-round matchups we’ve created: Muskegon Mona Shores vs. Caledonia and Detroit Martin Luther King vs. Southfield should be incredible, as well as the Ishpeming/Westwood and Iron Mountain/West Iron County rivalry games in the Upper Peninsula.
And no doubt, those who play for and support Burton Atherton, Ypsilanti Community, first-year Lapeer High School, Big Rapids Crossroads and New Haven Merritt Academy are ready to enjoy the playoff ride for the first time.
We’re excited to watch them all – and see which end up in Detroit with us to finish the fall over Thanksgiving weekend. We hope to see you there as well.
PHOTO: The Division 4 map for 11-player football has each region shaded; champion of the white plays green in a semifinal with yellow facing blue in the other.
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)