By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Consider that one hour Sunday night was the product of nine weeks of games on top of two more weeks of practice, hours of lifting weights, conditioning and camps and a total of six months of work at the MHSAA office, in addition to hours upon hours put in by athletic directors scheduling years in advance.
The anticipation for the release of another year's MHSAA Football Playoff pairings is matched by a giant exhale only after the results are broadcast on Fox Sports Detroit, streamed online and posted on locker room doors and Facebook walls all over our state.
But the Selection Sunday Show is the favorite hour of the season for many fans across our state. And that’s why, for the fifth year, we’ll explain our most difficult decisions in this Mapnalysis 2015 breakdown of how we paired 272 teams that will play next month for championships across nine divisions.
For those familiar with our playoff selection process, or who have read this report in the past and don’t want a refresher on how we do what we do, skip the next section and go directly to the “Observations & Answers: 2015.” For the rest, what follows is an explanation of how we selected the playoff pairings during the morning hours Sunday, followed by how we made some of the toughest decisions and a few thoughts on the breakdown of the field.
Our past: The MHSAA 11-player 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 Regionals 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 a record-low 216 automatic qualifiers by win total – with the final 40 at-large then selected, by playoff-point average, one from each class in order (A, B, C, D) until the field was filled. There were only four Class D additional qualifiers with 5-4 or 4-4 (playing eight games) records from which we could choose – so after those four we added 12 teams each from Class A, Class B and Class C.
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. 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. 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 & Answers: 2015
Go north with ease: For the most part, most Regional pairings were easier to draw than in past years. For the most part. Divisions 2 and 4 were not easy, specifically when it came to deciding which teams would be paired with an Upper Peninsula qualifier or a team from the Traverse City area. Keep in mind, distance on these maps isn’t based on how the bird flies, but how a bus would drive. In Division 2, that meant putting Muskegon, Muskegon Mona Shores and Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern – near U.S. 31 and U.S. 131 – with Traverse City Central instead of sending Midland and Midland Dow west, up I-75 and then east-to-west again on more non-highway roads. In Division 4, we considered pairing Alma and Saginaw Swan Valley with Escanaba instead of Big Rapids and Remus Chippewa Hills. That decision came down to Big Rapids being about 14 miles closer to Escanaba than Swan Valley (Whitehall would go with Big Rapids and Chippewa Hills regardless.).
Four counties wide: Yes, on first glance it looks a little odd that Bay City John Glenn and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s would be in the same Division 3 District – but look at the map as a whole. Eight Division 3 teams are located south and mostly east of St. Mary’s, and John Glenn is the only team that could be considered in the northeastern quarter of the Lower Peninsula (Mount Pleasant and Gaylord are right down the middle and naturals to go with Sault Ste. Marie and Petoskey.). With the thumb playoff qualifiers of near-similar size in Division 4, there were no other options than to create this four-county trip between the Eaglets and Bobcats.
Semifinal selection: When all the Regional lines are drawn for a division, we also must figure out which Regionals will meet for Semifinals. This annually provides some challenges. Do we match east vs. west or north vs. south? If something seems iffy in four weeks when those games are played, again, keep in mind the entire map and entire Regionals that are matched up.
Scheduled strong: Because we’re looking only at dots on a map, we don’t see the matchups until everything is drawn – and in that way, we’re like everyone else. It wasn’t lost on us that two 9-0 teams will have road games this week or three 5-4 at-large qualifiers will be at home. For those 9-0 teams, it’s true: there’s nothing more they could’ve done on the field. But here’s why they will travel.
- Clinton, in Division 6, hasn’t lost a regular-season game since 2011, and in fact plays in a strong Tri-County Conference made up of Class C schools and one Class D. Four of eight from the league made the playoffs, and the competition was so strong that Morenci and Petersburg-Summerfield will host games in Division 8. But Clinton’s opponent, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, while it did have one loss, fell to one-loss Class B Lansing Catholic – and the Falcons played eight Class B and one Class A school this season. Beating a Class B team is worth 16 points more than beating a Class C and 32 more than beating a Class D (with those points then divided over the number of games a team plays that season) – and all of that made the difference in St. Mary’s final eight-point playoff average edge over Clinton.
- Saugatuck in Division 7 is a similar story. The Indians are one of three undefeated teams in their District, and did play a pair of Class B opponents. But by no fault of their own, especially in league play where the schedule is set, Saugatuck didn’t face a team this season that won more than five games. Hesperia played three Class B opponents including one that finished 6-3 – enough for the slim 1.8 points more in playoff average that earned the Panthers homefield advantage. Pewamo-Westphalia has the highest average in the District and didn’t play a Class B – the Pirates actually played three Class D teams. But they also beat four teams that made the playoffs including two that finished 8-1 – giving them a 2.7-point edge on Hesperia and 4.5 edge on Saugatuck.
- The 5-4 teams that will host – Redford Thurston in Division 3 and Escanaba and Benton Harbor in Division 4, all earned their spots. Escanaba faced six playoff teams and beat three, Class B Benton Harbor played eight Class A teams, and Thurston played five playoff teams and a sixth that just missed an at-large bid.
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.
Those who would like to see the playoff selection process changed are in favor of a larger strength-of-schedule component, and it’s interesting to see how strength of schedule inadvertently made a larger impact this season than in the recent past – especially given the examples above of undefeated teams going on the road and at-large teams hosting.
Why were there fewer automatic qualifiers than ever before? Here's one theory. There were 11 fewer teams in 11-player football this season than in 2014 (most moved to 8-player). An argument can be made that there were fewer wins to be gained against teams that last season might have struggled to field 11-player teams, shifting the balance to fewer automatic qualifiers and more parity with stronger teams facing each other to fill their schedules.
Meanwhile, the 8-player field grew by nine teams this fall and has its strongest ever, with seven teams that finished 5-4 missing the postseason after a team with a sub-.500 record got in just a year ago.
Given how some matchups shook out this fall, the next argument by those seeking change likely will center on seeding entire Regionals instead of just Districts. But keep this in mind as well: if Regionals were seeded with this year's groupings, it would create possibilities of first-week trips like Battle Creek to Traverse City and Cedar Springs to Sault Ste. Marie. We're fairly sure most coaches and players would dread such journeys for a first-round game.
It's a lot to digest, and the scrutinizing will surely continue long after these playoffs are done as we all work to conduct the best tournament possible.
But at the end of the day – and the end of these next five weeks – to be the best, teams will need to beat the best no matter the matchups. And we’ve got plenty to look forward to starting this weekend and all the way through the 11-player Division 3 Final on Nov. 28 at Ford Field.
The MHSAA Football Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTO: The Division 4 map was among the most difficult to draw during this year's selection process.
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.)