This will be the final MHSAA Football Playoffs under the format created in 1999, with significant changes coming beginning with the 2020 season.
But the soon-to-be old way isn’t going out without a bang.
From a record number of additional qualifiers, to a first-ever coin flip to determine the final team in the 11-player field, to a series of maps that arguably included the toughest to draw at least this decade, this year’s “Selection Sunday” was jammed with notable moments that will play out in 10 divisions over the next five weeks.
Below, we explain how we made many of the most difficult decisions – and follow with a few points of interest that immediately jump out from this season’s brackets.
This process actually begins in April, when we start collecting schedules for the upcoming season – this time for 607 teams, from which 531 ended up eligible for the 11-player playoffs and 71 were eligible in 8-player. And of course, now that the brackets are drawn the major lifting begins – assigning officials for every game, gathering potential Semifinal sites in 11-player and working with our Finals hosts to again create once-in-a-lifetime experiences (for most) when our 8-player finalists face off Nov. 23 at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome and our 11-player finalists play for titles Nov. 29-30 at Ford Field.
So let’s dive in. Those familiar with this “Selection Sunday” recap will recognize first a refresher on the playoff selection process, followed by “Observations & Answers: 2019.” That’s followed by thoughts after a glance at this year’s brackets, and be sure to visit MHSAA.com to see all of 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: The last few scores of this regular season were added to MHSAA.com by 8 p.m. Saturday. 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 final season of 6-wins-and-in (or five wins playing eight games or fewer) produced 202 automatic qualifiers for the 11-player field with a record 54 additional qualifiers then selected by playoff point average – that group of additional qualifiers easily blowing past last year’s then-record total of 43. Additional qualifiers were selected from each class in order (A, B, C, D) until the field was filled. There were only two Class D additional qualifiers with 5-4 or 4-4 (playing eight games) records from which we could choose, and likewise there were 16 additional qualifiers available in Class C – so with those 18 spots filled, we added 18 teams from both Class A and B to fill out the field.
Here’s where the tie-breaker was forced into play. Among Class B teams, Durand and Imlay City tied for the 18th spot with playoff point averages of 42.667. They did not play each other during the regular season – so the first tie-breaker of head-to-head result couldn’t be used. The next tie-breaker is opponents’ winning percentage – and both teams’ opponents won 45.7 percent of their games this season. So we went to the coin flip, and Durand was awarded the final spot in the field.
Those 256 11-player teams were then split into eight equal divisions based on enrollment, and their locations were marked on digital maps then projected on wall-size screens and discussed by nearly half of the MHSAA staff plus two representatives from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association. Only the locations themselves were 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, and those fields remain in flux right through the last Week 9 games. For example: Colon as recently as after Week 7 was slated for Division 2. But the Magi after this weekend ended up in Division 1 with the second-highest playoff-point average but the 16th-highest enrollment – meaning Colon (160 students) and Cedarville (154) were the line between Divisions 1 and 2 this year.
Our future: 11-player divisions determined in March. More bonus points awarded in losses. Read all about it: Comparison of old and new playoff formats
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: 2019
We always start with CONGRATULATIONS: Detroit Leadership Academy, Detroit Communication Media Arts, and Pellston will be making their debuts in the MHSAA Playoffs this week, taking the list of teams that have never qualified for the postseason down to 11. Beal City and Crystal Falls Forest Park will make their MHSAA-best 35th playoff appearances. Five teams will be playing in at least their 17th consecutive playoffs – Rockford (25), Forest Park (23), Jackson Lumen Christi (22), Macomb Dakota (20) and Climax-Scotts (17).
Head-to-head rules: As noted above, it’s the first tie-breaker and comes into play immediately this week. In Division 3, East Lansing and DeWitt have identical playoff point averages, and East Lansing will host their first-round game thanks to a 21-2 Week 5 win. If Portland and Lansing Catholic both advance to an 11-Player Division 5 District Final, Portland will host thanks to a 21-20 Week 5 win over the Cougars. Same in 8-player Division 2, where if Powers North Central and Pickford meet in a Regional Final, the Jets will host thanks to their 20-14 win when the teams met in Week 3.
Traverse City traveling: Many years, we have to pay special consideration to ease of travel when we have one of 32 teams from a division in the Upper Peninsula. This year, we spent a lot more time discussing Traverse City schools – notably how to position Traverse City West in Division 1 and Traverse City Central in Division 2. There are three main north-south highways in the Lower Peninsula, with U.S. 131 the thoroughfare out of Traverse City. We also used it as the defining line in Division 1, with West going west with Grand Haven, Grandville and Hudsonville instead of staying with a more northern group that would’ve included Rockford and split Grandville and Hudsonville – which are six miles apart down I-196. In Division 2, we brought U.S. 127 into the mix, figuring it made more sense for travel to use that and 131 in grouping Traverse City Central with Muskegon Mona Shores, Midland and Midland Dow instead of creating a western District stretching from Traverse City to south of Kalamazoo.
Avoid the crisscross: Sometimes Districts drawn on the maps look perfect – but we run into trouble putting them together for a logical Regional. Sometimes we know eight dots should be a Regional, but there’s no reasonable way to split them into two four-team Districts. We do everything possible to keep a team from driving past a different District (or in 8-player Regional) on the way to its first or second-round game. The 8-Player Division 1 map probably looks a little odd with Deckerville possibly playing Morrice in the second round and the Orioles driving past Mayville or Kingston from another Regional to get there. However, there is a distinct northeast-to-southwest line separating those four schools – and if the Regional had been drawn to keep Deckerville with Mayville and Kingston, it would’ve meant Regional champs “jumping” over each other for their Semifinal matchup.
North/South vs. East/West: There isn’t one guiding directional when creating these Districts and Regionals. The 11-player Division 7 map has a little bit of both, with a pair of Districts along I-94 on the south side of the Lower Peninsula, but then Madison Heights Bishop Foley grouped with three Thumb-area teams for a north-south grouping. The other option was sending Bishop Foley northwest toward Flint and Lansing, but that would’ve left the Thumb schools and Beaverton maneuvering around Saginaw Bay.
At the end of the day …
Here’s my annual reminder: We draw these maps not knowing which schools are represented by the dots. The Division 5 and 6 maps were so easy to draw, I had no idea which schools were matched up until checking out the brackets hours later to put together this report.
But with all of that in front of me, here’s a glance at what jumps off the page:
• The Division 1 District made up of unbeaten Belleville and Brownstown Woodhaven, Saline (8-1) and Ann Arbor Pioneer (5-4) is obviously loaded. Belleville and Saline both made the Semifinals last season, and Saline’s only loss this fall was to reigning Division 1 champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. Woodhaven finished the regular season unbeaten for the second time in six years and its seeking its first District title.
• Last season’s Division 4 champion Edwardsburg has won 23 straight games and is back in the Division 3 bracket – the Eddies played in Division 4 the last two seasons and most recently in Division 3 in 2016. A possible return to Ford Field starts this week with St. Joseph and could include a trip to Zeeland West and matchup with also-unbeaten Mason.
• Hudsonville Unity Christian is another reigning champion in a new division, moving into Division 4 after winning the championship in Division 5 last fall. Unity begins with Otsego and would play either Grand Rapids Christian or South Christian with a win.
• Make way for Division 7. Unbeaten New Lothrop is the reigning champion and shares a District with undefeated Beaverton and a Regional with also-undefeated Pewamo-Westphalia. Iron Mountain, Lawton, Jackson Lumen Christi and Clinton also have yet to lose a game this season. Lumen Christi has won the last three Division 6 championships and 31 straight games.
• Math can lead to some unpredictable situations, including the occasional undefeated road team during the first round. Almont defeated Richmond 28-10 in Week 7 on the way to the Blue Water Area Conference title and a perfect regular-season record. But the Raiders will travel this week back to Richmond because the Blue Devils finished with a better playoff point average – Almont’s two nonleague opponents finished a combined 1-17, and Richmond’s both made the playoffs with a combined 13-5 record. That difference made the difference in playoff point average by about nine-tenths of a point in Richmond’s favor.
• This year’s 8-player brackets are loaded with intrigue, especially with 2018 Division 2 champion Rapid River not in the field and last year’s Division 1 runner-up Pickford in Division 2 this time. Morrice is the reigning Division 1 champion and could see undefeated Deckerville in a Regional Final. Pickford has to get through another 8-1 team in Engadine this week but could see undefeated Powers North Central in a Division 2 Regional Final.
• And it should shock no one if a team entering the playoffs 4-5 makes it to NMU. Gaylord St. Mary had to forfeit four victories but still made the playoffs with that record. Undefeated Suttons Bay is a possible Regional Final opponent, and St. Mary won their Week 6 matchup on the field 48-47 before later forfeiting that game.
That’s the start of what we’re looking forward to over the next five weeks. The steps taken today were just a few along the way as memories are made for thousands of Michigan high school football players this November.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Division 5 map, with clear-cut Districts, received quick support from the selection committee. (Middle) The Division 1 map split Grand Rapids-area teams along U.S. 131.
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.)