Inside Selection Sunday: Mapnalysis '15

October 26, 2015

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.

And then the fun begins again. 

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. 

Ground Rules

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.

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)