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.
We have our first league champions of the 2023 football season, and setups for several deciding matchups to come over the next week or two.
Explanations of many of those make up most of our “Week 6 Review” – but with playoff selection now just three weeks away, you’ll notice our attention has become focused as well on those races for the 32 qualifying spots in our MHSAA 11-player divisions and top 16s that make the 8-player brackets.
The state rankings mentioned frequently below are Michigan High School Football Coaches Association polls. The playoff-point averages are tracked by the MHSAA and used to determine the postseason fields – and discussion of movement on those lists will be prevalent through the rest of the regular season.
Bay & Thumb
HEADLINER Almont 30, Croswell-Lexington 20 Almont set itself up to clinch a share of the Blue Water Area Conference title this week or next by moving into first place alone in this matchup of co-leaders heading into the weekend. The Division 6 No. 2 Raiders (6-0) also tied their win totals of both of the last two seasons as they made another move toward potentially their best finish since 2019. Croswell-Lexington (5-1), No. 8 in Division 4, will be rooting for Richmond this week and Yale next to deal Almont a loss that would set up a possible shared league title. Click for more from the Port Huron Times Herald.
— WXYZ Detroit (@wxyzdetroit) September 30, 2023
Watch list Fenton 40, Linden 32 After sharing the Flint Metro League Stripes title with Linden and Swartz Creek last season, Fenton (5-1) clinched a share of this season’s championship and left Linden (4-2) holding out hope for a share if Flushing can upset the Tigers this week.
On the move Chesaning 28, Ovid-Elsie 19 Chesaning (5-1) can clinch a share of the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference title this week or next after stopping Ovid-Elsie (3-3) in its attempt to reset the standings. Marine City 36, Madison Heights Lamphere 13 Marine City (5-1) clinched a share of the Macomb Area Conference Silver championship with one more league game to play, sending Lamphere to 4-2. Grand Blanc 44, Lapeer 26 The Saginaw Valley Red is a two-team race with Grand Blanc (4-2) and Davison the only teams left undefeated in league play, and Lapeer (4-2) joining Saginaw Heritage with a second league loss and tied for third.
HEADLINER Macomb Dakota 31, Romeo 19 The Macomb Area Conference Red is one of the most monitored leagues in the state every season because of the powerful Division 1 contenders that traditionally emerge – and four have a chance to emerge as league champion this month. Romeo entered the weekend alone in first, but now four teams are 3-1 in league play with one game to go and co-champions guaranteed with those four teams facing off across two matchups this week. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.
Watch list Gibraltar Carlson 28, Trenton 23 Carlson (5-1) lined itself up to face Allen Park in Week 8 for some piece of the Downriver League title, as those two teams are left as undefeated in league play – although Trenton (4-2) could break things up a bit as the Trojans face Allen Park this week.
On the move Belleville 35, Westland John Glenn 8 Belleville (6-0) and Week 8 opponent Dearborn Fordson remain alone atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East after the Tigers dealt John Glenn (5-1) this first loss. Clarkston 44, West Bloomfield 36 After an 0-2 start, Clarkston (4-2) has won four straight and set itself up to face Lake Orion this week for a winner-take-all matchup in the Oakland Activities Association Red. The win also pushed the Wolves from 10 spots behind West Bloomfield (4-2) to three ahead on the Division 1 playoff points list. Detroit Voyageur 34, Detroit Edison 32 The Cougars (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to deal a second straight to Edison (4-2), which entered the week ranked No. 9 in the Division 6 coaches poll. The win also brought Voyageur back into the Division 6 playoff picture at No. 25 on the playoff points list after it had fallen back to No. 34.
HEADLINER Corunna 35, Goodrich 7 This has to rank at or near the top of the wins Corunna (6-0) has piled up over its recent resurgence, as it not only guaranteed the Cavaliers a share of the Flint Metro League Stars title but also handed the first loss to the No. 2-ranked team in Division 4. Corunna, ranked No. 5 in Division 5, led 28-0 at halftime on the way to its first win over the Martians (5-1) since 2016. Click for more from the Flint Journal.
A Flint Metro League-Stars collision! Both teams came in undefeated on the season, but Goodrich had a number on the Cavs since 2016.
Corunna would dominate on home turf, and take first place in the league. Final score, 35-7. pic.twitter.com/SSLb3VkGZz
— Miriam Bingham (@MiriamBingham) September 30, 2023
Watch list Pewamo-Westphalia 27, Fowler 14 After losing its opener to still-undefeated North Muskegon, P-W has won its last five and sits atop the Central Michigan Athletic Conference standings with two league games to play. Fowler (5-1) had defeated the Pirates last season to create a three-way CMAC shared title between those two and Laingsburg.
On the move DeWitt 41, Grand Ledge 38 The last two meetings between these two have come down to seven points or fewer, with last year’s Grand Ledge win helping the Comets (5-1) share the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title and this year’s DeWitt win knocking Grand Ledge out of first place while keeping the Panthers (3-2) in the mix. Beal City 30, Evart 16 The matchup for first place in the Highland Conference went to Beal City (6-0), which can clinch with another win over the next two weeks while second-place Evart (4-2) will need help to get a share. New Lothrop 34, Montrose 8 New Lothrop’s MMAC title hopes dimmed with a Week 2 loss to Chesaning, but the Hornets (5-1) are up to No. 9 in Division 8 playoff-points average with two wins over Division 6 schools and this one over the Division 7 Rams (4-2).
Northern Lower Peninsula
HEADLINER Charlevoix 30, Elk Rapids 7 The Division 7 No. 9 Rayders (5-1) continued to roll through Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders play, clinching a share of the league title with their fifth-straight win overall this season. Charlevoix can finish the championship outright in Week 8 at Tawas, and its final three regular-season opponents are combined 3-15 – making a fourth-straight season reaching eight wins look like a growing possibility. Click for more from the Petoskey News-Review.
Watch list Petoskey 36, Cadillac 21 There’s definitely work to do over the next three weeks for Petoskey (4-2) to make the playoffs, but the Northmen have guaranteed their best finish since 2018 – the last time they’d defeated Cadillac (3-3). They sit No. 23 on the Division 3 playoff points list.
On the move Benzie Central 31, Boyne City 24 The Huskies (3-3) will need Tawas’ help to catch a share of that Leaders title, but in avenging last season’s 51-35 loss to Boyne City (2-4) they’ve moved closer to possibly earning their best finish since 2018. Lake City 28, McBain 22 (2OT) The Trojans (4-2) defeated McBain (4-2) by six points for the second-straight season, this time helping them hold steady at the No. 23 spot on the Division 6 playoff points list. Ogemaw Heights 47, Flint Powers Catholic 9 Ogemaw Heights (5-1) ran its winning streak to five as it heads into this week’s NMFC Legends decider against Kingsley.
Southeast & Border
HEADLINER Michigan Center 32, Grass Lake 27 Michigan Center’s next two weeks will be massive, but the Cardinals earned that billing. By avenging last season’s 36-29 loss to Grass Lake (4-2), Michigan Center (5-1) upped what’s at stake in this week’s matchup with Napoleon as those share the lead in the Cascades Conference East – and with third-place Manchester waiting in Week 3 with its only loss to Napoleon. Click for more from JTV.
Watch list Parma Western 21, Battle Creek Harper Creek 6 The Panthers (6-0) also have set up a matchup of league co-leaders, downing third-place Harper Creek (4-2) on the way to this week’s meeting with Hastings for first in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference.
On the move Jackson Northwest 23, Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard 14 Northwest (3-3) has made massive strides the last two seasons, and this win has to rank up there as AAGR (5-1) had dominated its first five opponents. Adrian 22, Jackson 9 This Adrian win, along with Chelsea’s over Tecumseh, gave Chelsea a share of the Southeastern Conference White title – although if Jackson (4-2) defeats Chelsea this week, those two and possibly Adrian all could share the championship. Saline 43, Ann Arbor Huron 7 Saline (6-0) held onto its one-game lead in the SEC Red and sent Huron (3-3) into a third-place tie. The Hornets finish the league schedule with the seventh and eighth-place teams as they look to claim what would be a ninth Red title over the last decade but after finishing second a year ago.
HEADLINER Constantine 50, Allegan 14 Five of six teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore are .500 or better, and Constantine is leading the way at 5-1 and as one of three contenders that have started league play 2-0. The Division 6 No. 7 Falcons scored their season high in bringing some separation to the league standings by sending Allegan to 4-2. Click for more from the Kalamazoo Gazette.
— FOX 17 Blitz (@FOX17Blitz) September 30, 2023
Watch list Niles Brandywine 30, Dowagiac 7 Brandywine may be only 2-4, but the Bobcats moved up from No. 46 to 33 on the Division 7 playoff-points list by stunning Division 5 Dowagiac (4-2). Brandywine has another Division 5 opponent next in Benton Harbor.
On the move Berrien Springs 35, Buchanan 14 This win, combined with Brandywine’s over Dowagiac, put Berrien Springs (3-2) alone in first place in the Lakeland Conference – and after a 20-14 loss to Buchanan (3-3) last season cost the Shamrocks the league title. Richland Gull Lake 27, Benton Harbor 16 Gull Lake (4-2) already has bettered its record from a year ago, and with two wins over the next three weeks would post its best finish since 2009. Paw Paw 35, Edwardsburg 0 The Red Wolves (6-0) ended a 15-game losing streak against the rival Eddies (3-3) sending them out of first place in the Wolverine Conference while maintaining a tie for the top spot with Niles.
HEADLINER Menominee 44, Gladstone 26 One down, two to go as Western Peninsula Athletic Conference leader Menominee began a difficult three-game run against the three teams that entered the weekend tied for second in the league. Following Landan Bardowski among others, the Maroons (6-0) scored the most points Gladstone had given up in a game since 2017 – although Gladstone (4-2) also did some fine work offensively against a Menominee defense that had allowed just six points total over the first five weeks. Click for more from RRN Sports.
Trevor Theuerkauf passes to Aaron Brunelle for the Menominee touchdown tonight against Gladstone. pic.twitter.com/u1XZ8PGE4I
— Jack Hall (@JackHall600) September 30, 2023
Watch list Marquette 38, Escanaba 20 After playing an old rival as part of a new league, Marquette (3-2) is tied for second in the Big North Conference but more notably has equaled last season’s win total and sits among the top 32 on the Division 3 playoff-points list for the second-straight week.
On the move Calumet 17, Houghton 16 The Copper Kings (2-4) broke a three-game losing streak and now have 10 spots to climb to qualify for the Division 6 playoffs, but with some valuable opportunities to do so. Iron Mountain 55, Manistique 14 The Mountaineers (6-0) clinched a share of the West-PAC Iron championship with another big performance; they have won all of their games by at least 40 points. Sault Ste. Marie 50, Maple City Glen Lake 7 Sault Ste. Marie (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to Marquette to hold steady among the top 32 on the Division 4 playoff-points list, while Glen Lake (3-3) remains among the qualifying group in Division 8.
HEADLINER Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 20, East Grand Rapids 0 There was notable reshuffling in the Ottawa-Kent Conference White over the weekend, as the league has six teams 4-2 or better and four tied for first thanks in part to FHC’s shutout of the Pioneers. The Rangers (5-1), No. 2 in Division 3, now share the top spot with EGR (5-1), Lowell and Byron Center. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.
Check out the moments from Forest Hills Central's win over East Grand Rapids on September 29th, 2023! JT Hartman's performance led to a rushing touchdown and an fumble return for a touchdown in the 20-0 victory. Powered by @lawrencetechu. Visit https://t.co/Uq6Fmk66eG pic.twitter.com/1Yp6eDpknW
— STATE CHAMPS! Michigan (@statechampsmich) October 1, 2023
Watch list Spring Lake 35, Allendale 28 The O-K Blue has five teams at 4-2 or better, with Grand Rapids West Catholic alone at the top after Spring Lake (5-1) rebounded from a Week 5 loss to GRWC to hand Allendale (5-1) this defeat. But Spring Lake also just became Allendale’s biggest fan – Allendale gets West Catholic this week.
On the move Lowell 38, Byron Center 28 Matching Forest Hills Central, Lowell also fought back into the O-K Blue race as these two join FHC and EGR as 3-1 in the league and 5-1 overall. Muskegon 49, Zeeland East 14 The Big Reds (4-2) have won four straight to start the O-K Green schedule and set up this week’s meeting with co-leader Zeeland West. Impressive as well, Muskegon’s last three opponents, including East, are 4-2. Caledonia 30, Hudsonville 0 Division 2 top-ranked Caledonia (5-1) has followed up its loss to Rockford two weeks ago with two power-packed wins, in this one handing Hudsonville (4-2) its first shutout since 2012.
HEADLINER Adrian Lenawee Christian 73, Mendon 20 Lenawee Christian (6-0) put up 63 of those points in the first half, fully justifying its top ranking in Division 2 – and the Cougars could be considered the top team in all of 8-player as Division 1 top-ranked St. Ignace joined No. 2 Mendon (5-1) in losing for the first time over the weekend. Sam Lutz ran for four touchdowns and threw for four more for the Cougars, while Jack McCaw ran for 210 yards and three scores for Mendon. Click for more from the Adrian Daily Telegram.
Watch list Newberry 46, St. Ignace 40 Newberry (5-1) has won a playoff game each of the last three seasons and is hardly an unknown – but St. Ignace (5-1) had won all but one of its games this fall by double digits, making this an even more impressive result.
On the move Brown City 60, Mayville 0 This was another matchup of undefeated teams, and Brown City now sits alone atop the North Central Thumb League Stars with Mayville (5-1) and Kingston a game back. Crystal Falls Forest Park 36, Lake Linden-Hubbell 28 With Lake Linden-Hubbell (3-3) dealing Powers North Central a loss two weeks ago, the Great Lakes Eight Conference West has a different look at the top for the first time in a while with Norway leading the way but Forest Park (5-1) also in the mix if the Knights trip up. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart 25, Fulton 18 The Irish (6-0) have a one-game lead on Portland St. Patrick in the Mid-State Activities Conference with this win over Fulton (4-2) joining a Week 3 one-pointer over the Shamrocks as key reasons why.
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PHOTOS (Top) Grand Blanc's Jimmy Lacy (13) applies pressure as Lapeer takes to the air Friday. (Middle) Negaunee's Ian Engstrom (5) tries to catch a pass just a little bit out of his reach. (Top photo by Terry Lyons, middle photo by Cara Kamps.)