By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Between double checking data for more than a third of our 626 football teams, and creating 136 first-round games for our most popular tournament, the morning of MHSAA football "Selection Sunday" is both one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking of the school year.
So for those scratching their heads the last few days over how we picked the brackets this season, I offer one question and one warning:
How would you have done so differently?
And before you answer, remember that moving the position of one school affects at least seven more – if not all 32 in that division.
This was the second year I was involved in the football selection process, which while appearing simple on its face actually is layered with hours of discussions, calculations, checking and re-checking, and anything else we at the MHSAA can do to make sure we’ve created the best tournament possible.
Simply put, it’s more than just drawing circles and calling them good.
Below are a brief description of what we do, the history behind the process, and some challenges we face each time we draw these brackets – including some examples of our toughest this time around.
Our past: The MHSAA playoff structure – with 256 teams in eight divisions, and six wins equaling an automatic berth – debuted in 1999. An 8-player tournament was added in 2011, resulting in nine champions total when November is done.
That’s a long way from our start. 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 (or until the middle of the last decade), 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). Then comes re-checking and triple-checking of enrollments, co-ops, some records and more before the numbers are crunched and the field of 256 is set.
Those 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 points 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.
Geography rules: Drawing Districts and Regionals is all about location. Travel distance and ease DO come into play. Yes, ease is important. Schools near the same major highway might be further from each other in mileage than other options but have a better trip. A good example this year is in Division 6, which has seven teams in the U.P. and the northern Lower Peninsula. That meant Shelby needed to be included with those teams to make eight, and left Montague to a District that includes Hemlock – more than halfway across the Lower Peninsula. But at least, in this case, much of that trip will be on one roadway, M-46.
There is certainly conversation about every possible option. The staff splits into two groups, each handling four divisions (plus one of the groups handles 8-player too), and then the entire committee comes together to view all nine maps. There wasn’t one division where the group as a whole said, “That looks great, what’s next?”
Observations and answers
A different ballgame: I was asked whatever happened to Districts, meaning teams opening with opponents nearby. Remember that with eight divisions and 32 teams in each, the difference between maximum and minimum enrollments for each division is smaller than it used to be with just four classes, and the probability of finding two schools in the same division next door to each other is lower. This is especially true for our smaller schools, and those pairings are more spread out. Division 7 provides an excellent example. Opponents Dansville and Ottawa Lake Whiteford are 84 miles apart. But in another option considered, Dansville would’ve played Gobles – and those two are separated by 114 miles.
Points still matter: And that means strength of schedule is a big factor. After Districts are drawn, playoff point average determines the home team for those two games and Regionals as well. There are five Districts in which the team with the best or second-best record did not get home games because those teams’ playoff point averages ranked third among the four teams in those brackets. A number of other Districts have 8-1 teams playing at other 8-1 teams. It’s true: there are times a school can’t help the opponents it plays, because of league affiliation perhaps, and they have no control over how an opponent does the rest of the season. But a Class B team playing in a league with Class D schools can’t expect to compare averages well against teams in their division who face similarly-sized opponents during the regular season.
No boating: This didn’t come up last season, but did twice Sunday. We had to decide if it was a better trip for teams in the thumb to go around Saginaw Bay to play northern opponents, or instead send teams a little bit south of the thumb but with a straight shots north. As the bird flies, the thumb teams were closer in some cases. But I’ve never heard of a team hopping into a boat to get to a playoff game.
The fifth wheels: The toughest lines to draw are around areas with five schools in the same division. Remember, Districts come in fours, and one dot affects the rest. The Grand Rapids area gave us tough calls because of five teams in Divisions 2 and 4. The same was true in the southwest corner in Division 7 and the southeast corner in Division 6. No matter how we circled it, one of those teams got stuck with a longer trip. This time, that group included Caledonia, Grand Rapids South Christian, Blissfield and Gobles.
It’s easy to say certain areas of these maps should’ve been drawn differently. But again, keep in mind a statewide view.
Some of our pairings could create gigantic matchups earlier in the playoffs than those teams might like. But again, who is to decide which teams are the best and which matchups most “gigantic” before they prove it on the field? At least three teams touted during this fall as potentially the best in the state this season didn’t even win their conference titles.
And as I said in this analysis last year, determining the playoff schedule is just one step in many. Nine MHSAA champions must survive until the end, regardless of which opponents they face along the way.
Their journeys begin Friday.
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.)