By Nate Thompson
Whether you’re a defending three-time state champion like Muskegon Catholic Central, or a team crossing its fingers like Hesperia, it’s exciting to find out you’ve qualified for the state football playoffs.
The players see their school’s name unveiled on television, and there’s always an eruption of excitement.
But once the gathering parties are over, it’s down to business.
A total of 10 Muskegon-area football teams learned Sunday night that they are included in the 2016 Michigan High School Athletic Association state playoff field, which was unveiled on live TV on Fox Sports Detroit.
For Muskegon Catholic, a familiar path could be in store to Ford Field in Detroit, where the 9-0 Crusaders have triumphed three years in a row in the Division 8 state championship game. MCC, which is ranked No. 1 in Division 8, will open up its title defense against Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (5-4).
“We drew pretty much the same bracket as last year,” said Crusaders’ head coach Steve Czerwon. “If we win, we could see Beal City in the second round, Frankfort in the third and Saint Ignace in Round 4.
“We played (Sacred Heart) last year in the first round. They throw the heck out of the ball. We’ve seen two Wing-T teams the last two weeks, so it’s a different style of football.”
Czerwon said he’s excited to write a new chapter in MCC’s postseason history.
“Everybody knows this time of year, every game is a season in essence. What we did (the last three years), that doesn’t have any bearing on any of these teams we play.
“They are new teams, new kids and they have their own hopes and aspirations as well. We’ve been healthy, and have a clean season as far as injuries are concerned. It’s going to be interesting to see how our kids respond.”
In Division 7, Hesperia head coach Doug Bolles admitted that he began putting some equipment away at the beginning of the week because of thoughts that the Panthers’ season may be over with a 5-4 record.
“We had a forfeit win in our last game against Shelby, which was unfortunate for our seniors, because we weren’t sure if we’d get enough points to get into the playoffs,” Bolles said.
The Panthers’ thoughts began to change a few days later, when online playoff projections online were showing Hesperia in contention.
“The kids started saying, ‘Wow, really coach, do you think we have a chance to get in?’ Bolles said.
Bolles said his team cheered wildly when they saw they would be facing undefeated Pewamo-Westphalia in the first round.
“For the kids, it’s a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Last year, we were 9-0 and didn’t take care of business in the playoffs. This year, we’ve had to battle through some adversity, but we’ve got four losses to teams in the playoffs and Lakeview we beat, which is also in. So there’s hope that anything is possible.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Pewamo, but I know they’re a really solid program and they’ve got an outstanding rushing attack,” Bolles added. “They’ve really been putting up some points.”
Muskegon (8-1), which many consider the favorites in Division 3, will open up against Forest HIlls Northern (5-4) at Hackley Stadium. The Huskies lost to Mona Shores in the opening round of the playoffs last year.
If victorious, Muskegon would host Cadillac or East Grand Rapids.
In Division 4, Ludington (7-2), which is making only its fourth trip to the playoffs in school history, will travel to mid-Michigan to face Alma (8-1).
The winner will advance to take on either Whitehall (6-3) or Escanaba (7-2), who will play in the first round.
For Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon, the playoff berth is a reward for his team’s roller coaster ride over the past four weeks. The Vikings suffered back-to-back one-point losses to Oakridge and Ravenna, routed Shelby, then needed a furious second-half comeback on Friday against Battle Creek Harper Creek to qualify for the playoffs at 6-3.
“The last four weeks have been frustrating,” Sigmon said. “There were a lot of missed opportunities in those two one-point losses. But we were sitting at 4-3 and we realized we could control our own destiny. We’ve been in playoff mode the last two weeks. Friday’s game against Harper Creek felt like a playoff game.”
Sigmon feels his team could be a dangerous underdog in the Division 4 field.
“We’re 6-3, but we’re very close to being an 8-1 team,” he said. “The kids are incredibly confident going into this. We feel we can make a run and win this game up north.”
Sigmon doesn’t know a lot about Escanaba, but he knows the Eskymos will be the host and the game will likely be on Saturday.
In Division 5, West Michigan Conference champion Oakridge (8-1) will play host to Grant (6-3). The winner will likely face Ithaca, which has won five of the past six state titles in Division 6, and is now jumping up a division.
A pair of West Michigan Conference schools will battle in the Division 6 field. Ravenna (7-2) will host Lakeview, while Montague (7-2) will travel to face Kent CIty (7-2).
“I’ve got five kids that were in the playoffs a couple years ago,” said Ravenna coach David Smith. “We have a pretty good shot to make a little noise.”
Smith said Lakeview is a run-first team just like the Bulldogs.
“I don’t expect a lot of passing between us,” he said. “It will probably be a quick game.”
Smith said he was happy the Bulldogs were able to clinch possibly two home playoff games, but they need to execute if they want to achieve their goals.