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Grand Rapids area placed fewer teams in the state semifinals the past two seasons; could seeding be one reason why?

By: Steve Vedder, November 16, 2017, 3:00 pm

Grand Rapids – It may just be a blip on the radar, but there is also the nagging possibility that West Michigan football teams are facing a disturbing trend.

Despite back-to-back seasons of the area producing the fewest amount of teams competing in the semifinals since 2009, coaches aren’t worried that the area has peaked in terms of success in the state playoffs.

The coaches say many factors are involved in Grand Rapids having only three teams for this weekend’s semifinals, including how the state determines district and regional pairings, the O-K Conference Red Division beating up itself in the postseason and the crushing effect of a power such as Muskegon has had on area teams.

But to say the area has slipped when it comes to creating havoc during November, coaches say that’s not the case.

"I wouldn’t say the level is down.” Grandville coach Eric Stiegel said. “But I do kind of feel like the cards are stacked against a lot of good teams making it out (of the regional). I don’t know the complete picture of the playoff map, but I know it’s tough getting out of Grand Rapids."

Grandville has been among the most effected by the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s policy of grouping teams for the postseason.

"Teams play each other and knock each other out,” Stiegel said. “I don’t think that happens as much as on the east side of the state. There is more population over there so it doesn’t surprise me they have more teams for the semis."

If one way to measure success is how teams fare in the tournament, then Grand Rapids has indeed, at least statistically, slipped a peg. The area has produced 30 state champions by 10 teams (not to mention 15 runner-ups) since the state moved from eight classes to eight divisions in 1999.

But Grand Rapids has produced only three teams that reached the semifinals in each of the last two seasons, the fewest since a pair of teams qualified for the 2009 semifinals. Grand Rapids had an average of five teams in the semifinals from 2010-2015, topping out with six three times.

Is that a blip or a trend? Start with a look at the O-K Red, the collection of the area’s largest schools. MHSAA spokesman John Johnson said determining districts largely takes into account proximity and enrollment. He said the MHSAA tries to draw up groups of four for districts "that make the most sense." Those four are typically paired with another similar grouping to make a regional.

But those groupings can change from year to year, Johnson said.

"Everything has to do with how the dots fall," he said. "If they fall similarly in a year so be it. But there are no guarantees. Every year is unique to itself."

The problem for O-K Red schools is numbers. By comparison, the Class A schools in the Metro Detroit area that compete in Division 1 greatly outnumber those in the Grand Rapids area, and the state’s west side in general. The OK Red schools frequently run into each other in the first two rounds. And that’s becoming more common. For the four-year period from 2009-2012, O-K Red teams met in the playoffs four times. In the next four seasons from 2013-16, that number jumped to 10.

Stiegel admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s one reason so many of the area’s larger quality programs are dead in the water after just two weeks. Grandville has been eliminated in a rematch with an O-K Red school three of the last four years.

"We’re the only Division 1 conference west of Lansing," Stiegel said. "I’m not saying it’s the best conference, but we’re one of the best. There are some leagues where the best two teams wouldn’t play again until the finals. That doesn’t happen with us."

Geography aside, Grand Rapids Catholic Central coach Todd Kolster said there are a myriad of reasons why many excellent teams falter along the way to Ford Field. Possessing talent is a no-brainer, but there are also the matters of staying injury-free over a grueling 14-game season, the knack of winning close games and simple luck.

Some years it’s there, other times it isn’t, he said.

"Some years there are tons of west side teams and other years there aren’t as many," said Kolster, whose last two teams have combined for an eight-game winning streak in the tournament. "I don’t necessarily think football is down in the area. Teams from here beat up on each other so some good teams don’t win districts and regionals.

"All in all, football is very good here. There are a lot of traditionally good programs. We don’t have as many teams as the east side, but football is good here."

Kolster said it’s hard for any program to remain consistently good. That, he said, is the nature of high school sports as a whole.

"No question, that’s true of high school athletics in general," he said. "You have some great years, some down years. That’s the beauty of 15- to 17-year-old kids. One thing I would say, though, there is a lot of talent for NAIA (colleges) from different levels to Division I coming out of here.

"I think the depth of teams is as good as it’s ever been. Maybe the real high-end teams, not as good. But things always go in waves."

While Grand Rapids coaches aren’t necessarily clamoring for change, some believe the MHSAA could reshape the state tournament to make it fairer to west side schools. Of Grand Rapids West Catholic’s nine regular season games, five were against playoff qualifiers. That should have left West Catholic higher in the computer rankings, Falcons coach Joe Hyland said.

Hyland said pairing teams geographically and by computer point totals need to be examined more closely to make sure there is equality for all schools.

"Clearly, we can do better in having the best teams go deeper into the tournament," he said. "We need to put our heads together to avoid situations like that. I’m not the only one that’s scratching their head."

Stiegel said one solution to improving odds of the best teams meeting later in the tournament would be to seed regionals one through eight or possibly having two 16-team regions, with league teams not being able to meet through the first two rounds. But that would definitely increase travel and could lower gate attendances.

There is another reason why some outstanding Grand Rapids-area teams haven’t gotten past the regional final: Muskegon. The Big Reds are 68-11 since 2012, including a 20-6 mark in the tournament. In the last five years Muskegon has eliminated Zeeland West twice, beat a torrid East Grand Rapids team which had won seven straight games and also eliminated Lowell twice, including a powerful Red Arrow team which had a 10-0 record in 2013.

Zeeland West coach John Shillito said Muskegon has clearly been an obstacle for good Grand Rapids teams, but that’s part of high school athletics.

"It’s always a little cyclical. But it’s not an indication of West Michigan football being down. Football here is as good as it’s been," Shillito said. 

"There are a number of things, so many factors that play into it. One thing that’s true is the large number of Division 2 and 3 teams. There’s not a lot of space for teams to get out of districts or regionals. We knock each other off. And you have teams like Muskegon, which I think this year’s team is one of the best three teams I’ve ever coached against.

"You only have one team coming out of a district, one lone representative. And (advancing) is dependent on a lot of things. Circumstances have as much to do as anything in whether you go on."