By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Friday begins another five-week journey to whittle 272 MHSAA football playoff qualifiers to nine champions.
But many more than nine teams have something to celebrate over the next month:
- Burton Atherton, Lapeer, Ypsilanti, Big Rapids Crossroads Academy and New Haven Merritt Academy are appearing in the playoffs for the first time. Lapeer is in its first year as a school.
- Brethren (1990), Manton (1994), Fraser (1998), Harrison (1999), Romulus (2000), Bad Axe (2001), Riverview Gabriel Richard (2003), Leroy Pine River (2005), Newberry (2005) and Quincy (2005) all are in the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.
- Rockford, with 20 straight appearances, has taken over the longest active playoff streak with Felch North Dickinson not qualifying this fall for the first time since 1990. Menominee has qualified 19 straight seasons, and Crystal Falls Forest Park is next with 18 straight.
- Beal City has made the playoffs 15 straight seasons and an MHSAA-best 32 times overall, following by Farmington Hills Harrison with 31 appearances and Forest Park with 30.
- All nine champions from 2013 are back, although Marine City is in Division 5 after winning Division 4 a year ago. All but one of last season’s 18 finalists made the field again. Ithaca is going for its fifth straight title, and Birmingham Brother Rice is seeking its fourth straight.
And it all begins this weekend. Read on for some of the best matchups from each division. All are Friday unless noted.
Fraser (6-3) at Dearborn Fordson (9-0)
Fraser was among big celebration stories Sunday after earning its first playoff berth since 1998 – in fact, the Ramblers have achieved their first winning season since 2001 and were 3-6 only a year ago. Fraser also opened this fall 1-3 before winning five straight to qualify – so there’s a lot here to praise. But Fordson has high expectations as well. The Tractors have made the playoffs nine straight seasons but not past the District opener since 2011. Three of their last five wins this fall are over playoff teams – and Fordson gave up single-digit points in seven victories.
Others that caught my eye: Waterford Mott (6-3) at Walled Lake Central (7-2), Plymouth (7-2) at Livonia Churchill (7-2), Hudsonville (5-4) at Holland West Ottawa (5-4).
Caledonia (7-2) at Muskegon Mona Shores (8-1), Saturday
For statewide fans, this is the most intriguing game of opening weekend. Their first meeting wasn’t much to discuss – Mona Shores won big, 40-7. But since, Caledonia has outscored its five opponents by a combined 187-27. Four of those opponents are in the playoffs, and total the Fighting Scots have beaten six playoff teams from arguably the strongest area of the state. That said, Mona Shores might be the best from the west right now, given arguably its most memorable win ever last week, 48-27 over Muskegon. Quarterback Tyree Jackson will finish his career among the leading passers in MHSAA history, and his offense is averaging 41 points per game.
Others that caught my eye: Portage Northern (6-3) at Portage Central (7-1), Farmington Hills Harrison (7-2) at Fenton (9-0), Southfield (6-3) at Detroit Martin Luther King (8-1).
East Grand Rapids (6-3) at Lowell (8-1)
The Red Arrows own four straight wins over their Ottawa-Kent Conference White rival. But it’s important to put the last couple of matchups in perspective; Lowell helped keep East Grand Rapids out of the playoffs in 2011 with a 42-39 win and then won 30-25 in Week 3 this fall. The Pioneers would surely enjoy returning to the playoffs after two years off by ending Lowell’s season in a District opener.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern (7-2) at Cedar Springs (8-1), Mount Pleasant (6-3) at Marquette (7-2) on Saturday, Grand Rapids Christian (5-4) at St. Johns (8-1).
Goodrich (7-2) at Saginaw Swan Valley (9-0)
It will be tough for Swan Valley to not look ahead to a possible District Final matchup with Lansing Sexton, the only team to beat the Vikings the last two seasons (in last year’s Regional Final). But they know to be careful with Goodrich, their District Final opponent in 2012 and the second-place team this fall in the solid Genesee Area Conference Red. Swan Valley has enjoyed senior running back Alex Grace to the tune of 7,055 rushing yards while building a 30-4 record over the last three seasons – he’s currently fifth all-time for career rushing yards in MHSAA history and could move up to third on the list with a big game Friday.
Others that caught my eye: Paw Paw (6-3) at Edwardsburg (8-1), Williamston (7-2) at Lansing Sexton (9-0), Detroit Country Day (5-4) at Detroit Denby (5-4) on Saturday.
Muskegon Oakridge (8-1) at Hopkins (8-1)
This is another of the few battles between league champions highlighting the first weekend; Hopkins won the O-K Silver and Oakridge claimed the West Michigan Conference title. Oakridge’s lone loss came on opening night to reigning Division 5 champion Grand Rapids West Catholic, and the Eagles fell just shy of playing for that title last fall losing to Menominee in a Semifinal. But Hopkins earned enough playoff points to host this week with a strong nonleague slate – in addition to beating Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian to win its O-K division, the Vikings also beat Schoolcraft and lost to Allendale in nonconference play. All three are playing this weekend as well.
Others that caught my eye: Lakeview (8-1) at Remus Chippewa Hills (7-2), Newaygo (7-2) at Reed City (7-2), Stockbridge (6-3) at Olivet (7-2) on Saturday.
Montrose (6-3) at Flint Beecher (9-0)
With its long winning tradition and after losing by only a point to Ithaca in a Semifinal last fall, Montrose might still be considered by some the favorite in this District opener – despite losing to Beecher 19-14 only two weeks ago in the deciding game of the GAC Red. In fact, Beecher will make its eighth straight playoff appearance and finished perfect for the regular season for the second time in six years, and made the Semifinals in 2012. Montrose did give the Buccaneers their toughest game this season – but the Rams have plenty to prove with three losses over their last five games and no wins this season over teams with winning records.
Others that caught my eye: Niles Brandywine (8-1) at Watervliet (8-1), Manchester (8-1) at Clinton (9-0), Schoolcraft (6-3) at Constantine (8-1).
Iron Mountain (6-3) at Iron River West Iron County (8-1)
Despite the shared mineral in their names, these schools actually are about 45 miles apart along the Michigan/Wisconsin border. But the rivalry burns as if they are neighbors, even though they also play in different leagues. They’ve faced each other annually for nearly 50 years and often twice of late with a rematch in the playoffs. West Iron won the first game this year, 24-0, but the Mountaineers are 5-1 since despite one-point wins each of the last two weeks.
Others that caught my eye: Ishpeming Westwood (6-3) at Ishpeming (8-0), Pewamo-Westphalia (7-2) at Union City (8-1), Homer (7-2) at Hudson (8-1).
Hillman (8-1) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (8-1)
This is a rematch of a 2012 playoff opener, a 62-14 Johannesburg-Lewiston win, but things have changed slightly. That year Hillman was an at-large qualifier at 5-4; this season the Tigers have only a loss to undefeated Whittemore-Prescott. The Cardinals have beaten three playoff teams, falling only to St. Ignace in Week 5, and quietly built on one of the consistently strong programs in the northern Lower Peninsula – they’ve won at least eight games four seasons running.
Others that caught my eye: Indian River Inland Lakes (7-2) at Munising (8-1), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (6-2) at Waterford Our Lady (8-1) on Saturday, Pittsford (7-2) at Climax-Scotts (8-1).
Bellaire (7-2) at Cedarville (8-1) on Saturday
Cedarville’s football program probably has looked forward to this week for nearly a year – the Trojans were upset 28-26 in their playoff opener last season by league foe Engadine, a year after a similar upset at the hands of rival Rapid River in a 2012 Regional Final. Cedarville seems on the cusp of big things again – but this time must first face Bellaire, another Bridge Football Alliance opponent. The Eagles are seeking their first 8-player win in five games against the Trojans after falling to them 57-14 only two weeks ago.
Others that caught my eye: Kingston (6-3) at Owendale-Gagetown (8-1), Portland St. Patrick (8-1) at Lawrence (9-0) on Saturday, New Haven Merritt Academy (6-3) at Morrice (5-4) on Saturday.
PHOTO: Mona Shores quarterback Tyree Jackson prepares to throw during last week’s victory over rival Muskegon. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sturr.)