By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – There are four Muskegon County teams still standing in the 2020 high school football state playoffs.
But if conditions don’t improve around the state with COVID-19 viral infections, they may have to settle for being district champions and calling it a season, without having the opportunity to compete any further for a state championship.
That would be a shame, because all four teams were on pretty special missions as they prepared to play in next weekend’s regional round, with a chance to earn berths in the state semifinals.
Mona Shores is the defending Division 2 state champion, and after surviving two close calls in district playoff games seemed primed to be a serious contender to repeat.
Muskegon was playing to reach the state finals for an amazing fifth straight season, and perhaps come away with a victory, after losing three of the previous four Division 3 title games.
Montague also wanted another shot, after losing in the Division 6 state championship game in 2018, and squandering a big lead and losing by one point in overtime last year in the semifinals.
Oakridge was very excited to still be playing, after winning its first Division 5 district title since 2017 last week. The Eagles had lost two straight district title games, in 2018 and 2019, and three in the past four seasons.
But Michigan state officials announced on Sunday that all high school sports would be suspended, including team practices, beginning Wednesday for at least three weeks, due to the massive spike in COVID-19 infections throughout the state.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association immediately announced that it would try to find a way for the games to be played when the suspension is lifted. The MHSAA is expected to announce a tentative schedule for regional, semifinal and state championship games in all eight divisions by midweek.
Yet many people wonder if those games will ever be played once we start getting deep into December.
The games probably won’t happen if the COVID infection rate does not decline significantly by early December. There are also questions about whether the games could be played in harsh winter conditions, and whether the players would have adequate time to adjust to the physical challenges again after three weeks off.
The entire scenario is a rerun of the nightmare of last spring, when the state high school boys and girls basketball tournaments were shut down early due to COVID, and no state champions were crowned.
It also brings back the type of confusion that was common in the late summer, when the MHSAA announced that football would be postponed until the spring of 2021, then reversed course a few weeks later and said teams could play shortened six-game regular seasons, with an expanded playoff format.
Everybody was happy about that change, because they were allowed to have a fall season after all. And Sunday’s announcement had no bearing on many football teams around the state, because the majority had already been eliminated from the playoffs.
But for teams like Mona Shores, Muskegon, Montague and Oakridge, the possibility of being bounced from the playoffs without actually losing is difficult to process.
Sunday’s announcement was extremely difficult for the defending champion Mona Shores Sailors, who were 9-0 heading into this weekend’s regional title game at East Lansing.
The Sailors had two very close calls in the playoffs over the past two weeks, sneaking by Forest Hills Central 28-25, then outlasting a tough Caledonia squad 43-35 in Friday’s district championship game.
Victories in those close games told Coach Matt Koziak that his team could handle playoff pressure, and was ready to make another serious run.
“The kids have played so tough and have been so resilient,” Koziak said. “You felt confident that they could win the close ones.
“The Associated Press had us ranked No. 1 in Division 3 all season, and that put extra pressure on the kids. We had a bullseye on our backs every week, and opponents brought their best games. But our guys just worked around that. They didn’t always play perfect, but they always found a way to win.”
While Koziak would obviously love to get a chance to finish the playoffs, he admits he has his doubts. If the games do resume, he said the Sailors will be there, but he’s not convinced that will happen.
“I think (MHSAA executive director) Mark Uyl does an incredible job, and I believe the MHSAA has every intention of trying to make it happen,” Koziak said. “I’m just struggling to picture how it’s going to look, with the kids off for three full weeks with no practice. You want the kids to be able to have a chance to get back to the finals, but I am less optimistic about being able to finish.”
Another team that is very hungry to finish the season is Montague, which is also 9-0 and has been ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 6 all season.
The Wildcats have cruised through the playoffs so far with easy wins over Hart, Clare, and then No. 2 ranked Muskegon Catholic, 36-7, in a district championship showdown last Friday. They were scheduled to play Montrose at home for a regional title this weekend.
Montague Coach Pat Collins said the state’s sudden announcement took him by surprise, and even though he was not with his players on Sunday, he knows they were upset.
“I know there were some tears shed,” Collins said. “Any abrupt change in kids’ lives is hard for them to adjust to.”
Collins thinks there is a way for the season to resume – if people throughout the state wear masks and follow other health advisories, which could bring the number of infections down.
“I’m an optimist at heart,” Collins said. “I feel like it could happen, if people do the right things. I think in most cases they have been, but we will have to do better and try harder to get this to change.
“We could possibly start practice on Wednesday Dec. 8, and we would have one week to prepare for an opponent. I could see a midweek regional game and a midweek semifinal, and then a midweek final between Christmas and New Years. We could get this done before 2021.”
Even if the season does not resume, Collins said he thinks that his team has proven itself, and can be proud of its season.
“We want to finish more than anybody,” he said. “We worked for it, earned it, and dreamed about it. If any group of kids deserve it, it’s this group of kids. They put the time and work in, and they are a bunch of character dudes.
“But if it does end, I don’t think it could have ended better for us than it did. We were ranked No. 1 in Division 6 all year, and we have defended that ranking on a few different weeks, beating Whitehall and Clare, which were both undefeated, and then beating Muskegon Catholic, in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, at their place. The fashion in which we won that game, I don’t know what else you could ask for.”
Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield is skeptical about the possibility of the season picking up again.
The Big Reds were 8-1 on the season, with their only loss coming to conference rival Mona Shores in Week 2. They posted easy playoff wins over Greenville and Cedar Springs, then downed Marquette last Saturday to win their ninth straight district championship.
“I don’t know how you take three weeks off with no contact and then have one week to prepare for a regional final,” said Fairfield, whose team was scheduled to host East Grand Rapids in the regional finals on Saturday. “I don’t know how that gets done. Your body has to be acclimated to this game.
“If they think (playing again) is a good idea, I’ll support that and I’ll be there. But right now our main focus should be on the health of humanity. We are just taking a positive out of winning eight games, and not trying to put false hope into our kids’ heads.”
Fairfield said he is thrilled with the way his players have responded to a very challenging season that almost never got started.
“I will celebrate with our seniors,” he said. “Twelve weeks ago we were not even going to play, then we went out and played nine games, we won a district championship, we were getting ready to host our fourth playoff game, and we were starting to play our best football.
“I want to celebrate what the kids have accomplished and achieved, and not let that get lost. They went through a winter, spring and summer of the unknown, then to have them put together the product that they put together, I couldn’t be any more proud of our guys.”
Oakridge coach Cary Harger also has his doubts about starting up again.
The Eagles finished the regular season with a 4-2 record, won pre-district playoff games against Chippewa Hills and Big Rapids, then beat Tri-County is last week’s district title game.
They were scheduled to play on the road against Grand Rapids Catholic on Friday for a regional title.
“It kind of has that feeling to it,” Harger said, when asked if he thought the season might be over. “Looking at the other end of three weeks, it puts us back to practice on Dec. 9, which is a Wednesday. Are they expecting us to play a playoff game that weekend? Or would they give us time to acclimate again, this time in winter weather instead of summer weather?
“Then the week after that would be the 18th, the week after that would be Christmas, and the week after that would be New Years. So it doesn’t look good.
“It is frustrating. It was nice to get back to a district title, our team is healthy, and we’ve been playing up to our goal of improving every week. Looking at it positively, we had a good run.”