By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
For a fading moment, we thought we saw the Big Dipper floating through the second floor of the MHSAA office Sunday morning.
Michigan’s northernmost high school in Calumet held the handle – but the only place the rest of the Region pointed was to questions about how we could come up with such a disjointed scenario for this season’s Division 6 Playoffs.
Below – as has become an annual tradition – we’ll answer that question and a few more about this year’s selection process.
Our mission Sunday was to map 213 automatic qualifiers for 11-player football – and a record 43 additional qualifiers with 5-4 or 4-4 records – plus our top 32 8-player teams across 10 divisions of playoffs that will conclude with the latter Nov. 17 at Northern Michigan University and 11-player Nov. 23-24 at Ford Field.
As often noted in the past, this process didn’t start Sunday morning – but months and in some cases more than a year ago when athletic directors began scheduling games for this fall. We make sure all are loaded into our system by early summer, and then follow every score/cancellation/forfeit/additional change through Week 9’s final games – including this season those for 46 teams from other states or Ontario that played Michigan schools and needed to be followed as well because their successes affected MHSAA teams’ strengths of schedule.
Now that the maps are drawn, we line up all that will come with the next five weeks of games including assigning officials, gathering potential Semifinal sites and continuing our work with our Finals hosts to create memorable experiences as teams play for championships.
So we’re off. 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: 2018.” 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 plus a few thoughts on the breakdown of the field. Go to this page on MHSAA.com to see the pairings in full.
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, and in 2017 a second division of 8-player football was introduced.
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 11-player 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 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 and coaches). 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.
As noted above, this season there were 213 automatic qualifiers for the 11-player field by win total with the final 43 additional qualifiers then selected, by playoff-point average, one from each class in order (A, B, C, D) until the field was filled. There were only five Class D additional qualifiers with 5-4 or 4-4 (playing eight games) records from which we could choose – so with those five we added 13 teams from Class A and B and 12 from 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 red 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 8-player process is different for team selection and similar for designation of Regionals. We take the top 32 teams in 8-player based on playoff point average as our field, then re-sort those 32 by enrollment – the 16 biggest make up Division 1, followed by the next 16 in Division 2. There are no automatic qualifiers by record for 8-player.
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 (or in 8-player, 16) 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: 2018
We always start with CONGRATULATIONS: And this season they go first to Detroit Community, Detroit Public Safety Academy and Dexter, which made the MHSAA Football Playoffs for the first time. Of 611 football varsities across the state, all but 12 have made the playoffs at least once. Rockford missed out on an automatic bid with a Week 9 loss, but received an additional qualifier berth to set the record by making the MHSAA Playoffs for the 24th straight season. Crystal Falls Forest Park (22 seasons), Stevensville Lakeshore (21), Macomb Dakota (18), Climax-Scotts (16) and Grand Rapids West Catholic (16) also extended their stays on the list for longest MHSAA playoff streaks.
Break the tie: We again had to break a tie (actually two for District rounds) as teams that will or could meet ended up with the same playoff point averages. Ties are broken by head-to-head competition first – if the teams played each other during the regular season – followed by opponents’ winning percentage as the second criteria and then a coin flip if those two won’t do it. Our tie-breaks this season both took place in Division 4 – Grand Rapids South Christian received a home game against Wyoming Godwin Heights this week and St. Clair will host North Branch if they meet in a District Final. There are more possible meetings of teams with same averages in later rounds, and those ties will be broken the same way.
What is up with Division 6: Last year I had a “worst map ever,” and two of them this year would be in contention. Division 6 is the first – but the explanation for how we came up with what we did is simple. Region 1 is made up of two Districts with six schools from the northern Lower Peninsula and two from the Upper Peninsula. So however the Districts were sliced, two Lower Peninsula schools had to go with the U.P. And we settled this one strictly by comparing highway mileages of those Lower Peninsula teams to Mackinac Bridge (again, the only way to travel between the peninsulas). In the end, we placed Elk Rapids (93 miles) and Traverse City St. Francis (124) with Escanaba and Ishpeming Westwood because they are closest to the Bridge – followed by Kingsley (126), Maple City Glen Lake (144), Beaverton (161) and Tawas (168). The optics are strange – it may look like Glen Lake is driving past Elk Rapids and St. Francis on the way to Beaverton this week and potentially Tawas next. But Glen Lake’s route still travels south of those two schools this week (and depending on its chosen route on the way to Tawas as well), making everything fit – strangely looking, but nonetheless.
Lake Huron tour: You could see most of the American side by checking out this week’s Region 2 games in 8-player Division 2. This map also looks odd – there’s a bridge crossing and a drive around Saginaw Bay. Yet, after drawing this at least two more ways, we settled here – although Region 2 looks a little odd, all four teams are east of I-75 and north of Bay City.
Get your zoom on: We don’t enjoy splitting up teams that live next door to each other, but sometimes it’s a must. In Division 7 we were able to keep all eight Detroit-area and southeastern schools in Region 4, but the distance between its Districts came down to a few miles along I-96. In Division 2, we had to factor in outliers Port Huron Northern and Temperance Bedford – and the resulting Districts ended up splitting Livonia Churchill and Livonia Franklin.
At the end of the day …
I include this every year, but we draw the maps not knowing which schools are represented by the dots. At one point Sunday morning, I was wrong about which division we were considering at the time – and that’s a good thing. For the map drawing portion, it doesn’t matter.
But now that we know who is going where, here’s a glance at some stories that might emerge this week:
• We’ve got rivalries, like Portage Northern at Portage Central and Birmingham Groves at Birmingham Seaholm in Division 2, St. Johns at DeWitt and Haslett at East Lansing in Division 3, Constantine at Schoolcraft in Division 6 and Waterford Our Lady at Clarkston Everest Collegiate in Division 8 – plus Kingston at Deckerville in 8-player Division 1. There are many more we could mention – and some potential feuds renewed in two weeks as well depending on who wins this round.
• The Macomb Area Red, generally considered one of the strongest leagues annually in the state, sent four of six teams to the Division 1 playoffs – and they’re all in the same District. Champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (9-0) takes on Utica Eisenhower this week, and with a win would face either Macomb Dakota or Romeo after defeating both by just seven points during the regular season.
• Perhaps the most intriguing opener statewide is River Rouge (8-1) at Detroit Martin Luther King (7-2) in Division 3. Neither gets tested much during their league seasons, but both played tough nonleague opponents and the winner will be considered a favorite to make it to Ford Field.
• Farmington Hills Harrison holds the records for most MHSAA Finals appearances (18) and titles (13) and will play its final playoffs in Division 4 after finishing Division 3 runner-up a year ago. The school is closing next spring. Coach John Herrington is the winningest in state history with 441 wins and counting against only 111 losses (and a tie).
• There are a few annual powers not in the bracket this season – most notably Lowell, Muskegon Catholic Central and Menominee – and others like Rockford, Mendon and Grand Rapids West Catholic got in as additional qualifiers. West Catholic has won five straight Division 5 championships and opens at Hudsonville Unity Christian. The Falcons won the 2013 title after also entering as a 5-4 team.
• There are 34 teams entering the playoffs unbeaten, but only four Districts have multiple – Manistee and Reed City share one in Division 5, Traverse City St. Francis and Calumet in Division 6, Reading and Ottawa Lake Whiteford in Division 8, and Wyoming Tri-unity Christian and Morrice in 8-player Division 1. All of those potential matchups would happen in 11-Player District or 8-Player Regional Finals.
• This will be the eighth year of the 8-player tournament, and in Division 1 only Deckerville in 2012 has won an MHSAA championship in this format. In Division 2, reigning champion Crystal Falls Forest Park opens with 2015-16 back-to-back champion Powers North Central.
• In 8-player, three teams with 5-4 records didn’t make the field of 32, and two teams with 4-5 records advanced. This is the reality of measuring by playoff point average. Fife Lake Forest Area and Webberville are the 4-5 teams, and their opponents this season won more than 61 percent of their games. The three teams at 5-4 and one at 4-4 had opponents’ winning percentages between 38-56 percent.
Every school and every community can tell a story of making these playoffs, and over the next five weeks the fortunate will continue to write chapters filled with moments that will never be forgotten. We’re looking forward to watching them all unfold.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Division 6 map shows an odd-looking scenario with two Traverse City-area teams in the same District as two from the Upper Peninsula. (Middle) The 8-player Division 2 map shows how schools are connected to a District along the Lake Huron shoreline.
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)