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 — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
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@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)