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Northern Michigan MHSAA Football Playoffs Preview: Divisions 1-4

The brackets for the MHSAA football playoffs are out and all week long our MISportsNow team will be breaking down the playoff picture in each division for teams in the 9&10 News coverage area.

Each member of the MISportsNow team was asked to give its thoughts on the local playoff picture for each division.

We start by taking a look at Divisions 1-4.

Division 1:

  • No local teams

Tyler Driesenga, Sports Reporter/Anchor: There are no local teams in the Division 1 playoffs but this division is always a fun tournament to watch unfold statewide. Looking at the bracket, the thing that sticks out to me immediately is that Caledonia and Rockford are in the same district. There was so much hype surrounding their meeting last week (a 38-15 Rockford win), and that would be a thrilling district championship game should the two teams both win their first round games. Rockford faces East Kentwood in the first round and Caledonia takes on Grandville.

Greg Miller, Sports Photojournalist: If my memory serves, this division was rife with upsets on the way to Ford Field a year ago.  That should be expected when you’re dealing with some of the biggest and best programs in the state.  This could be an entertaining bracket to watch from week to week, even though no local teams are involved.

Danielle King, Sports Reporter/Anchor: I’m new to the area this fall but have quickly learned that Rockford is a team to look out for in this division. The Rams are one of only two undefeated teams in the state in Division 1, along with defending state champion Belleville. But those Detroit-area teams are always extremely tough to take down and I think we’ll see another Detroit-area team win the state title this year.

Division 2:

  • Traverse City Central (5-4) at Mona Shores (7-2) – Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.

Tyler Driesenga, Sports Reporter/Anchor: Well, I think it goes without saying that TC Central will be the farthest-advancing team from Northern Michigan in this division, given that they’re the only playoff team from Northern Michigan in this division. Looking at their first round matchup, you knew it would be a tough draw for the Trojans given their 5-4 finish in the regular season. There aren’t a whole lot of 6-3 or 7-2 schools this size that you can look at and think ‘oh, that’s a favorable matchup.’ Regardless, I think TC Central is a much better team than its record this season shows as the SVL is such a tough conference. I fully expect a close game between them and Mona Shores and truly wouldn’t be surprised if the Trojans returned from Muskegon with a first-round victory.

Greg Miller, Sports Photojournalist: The TC Central Trojans couldn’t have had a more emotional ending to the regular season to prepare them for the ups and downs of the postseason, having to battle back against rival TC West, a team that had its collective heart set on playing spoiler.  The question now is how do the Trojans respond to that 14-13 triumph?  Does it galvanize them for a spirited run in the postseason reminiscent of last year’s run to the state championship game?  Or do they struggle to again conjure up the focus and emotional fire needed to battle through an extremely tough district?  The Trojans’ defense may be the key factor.  If they can hold their opponents close, who knows what can happen in late game situations?

Danielle King, Sports Reporter/Anchor: Given its run to the state championship game last season, Traverse City Central is a team that many anticipated to make it far prior to the season even starting. The fact that the Trojans made the playoffs is not a shocker. Their finishing regular season record, that was a shocker that proved just how tough the Saginaw Valley League can be. The Trojans are a hard fighting team, with the last two losses coming down to the wire. Heading into the first round, this team should put up the same fight against Mona Shores and keep it at a close battle. Mona Shores is a high scoring team, so the Trojans’ defense will be vital on Friday night.

Division 3:

  • Cadillac (5-4) at Dewitt (6-3) – Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.
  • Gaylord (6-3) at Mt. Pleasant (8-1) – Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.

Tyler Driesenga, Sports Reporter/Anchor: All of our local teams are in the same district in Division 3, so we know that in two weeks there will be (at most) one remaining. To me, Mt. Pleasant is the team to beat in this district. The Oilers have had so much success in the last few regular seasons and their dominant 51-29 win over Midland earlier this season showed everyone what this team is capable of when it’s clicking. For the first time in a few years, Dewitt  (6-3) doesn’t look like a complete juggernaut (although the Panthers are obviously still an extremely tough team). I think this is the year the Oilers can get over the hump and claim their first district title since 2015.

Greg Miller, Sports Photojournalist: We are treated to a deliciously intriguing contrast of styles in the opening round in Division 3, with Gaylord visiting Mt. Pleasant.  The Oilers scored at least 21 points in every game this season, while the Blue Devils only allowed one opponent to reach the 20-point mark.  Mt. Pleasant is blessed with a number of dangerous offensive weapons, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Oilers deploy them against the stingy Gaylord defense.  On the other side of the draw, Cadillac may not have ended the season the way they wanted to, with back-to-back losses, but the Vikings are not afraid of close game scenarios. They have proven over the past few seasons that they are not a team to be underestimated in the playoffs.  A Vikings’ victory could setup a rematch of what was one of our more interesting “Sports Overtime Game of the Week” games this year, when they fell to Mt. Pleasant by 3 points back in Week 3.  Whoever comes out of this district should have a decent to above average chance at taking home a regional crown as well.

Danielle King, Sports Reporter/Anchor: I witnessed Mt. Pleasant and Cadillac in-person early this season. Based on what I saw from that game, Cadillac can come out hot right out the gate and Mt. Pleasant is a team that adjusts quickly. That being said, Cadillac is still learning under a new head coach, who pulled a 360 on their offensive style of play. The sense I got at practice was that the players believe in coach Shawn Jackson and are loving what he has thrown at them, so I truly believe the Vikings will push that passion into the playoffs. The Oilers on the other hand, they are just a talented bunch and will not let up. If we see a rematch of these two teams for the district title, I honestly have no idea who would come out on top because both have their own strengths at the end of the day.

Division 4:

  • Big Rapids (7-2) at Whitehall (9-0) – Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.
  • Ludington (7-2) at Fruitport (7-2) – Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.

Tyler Driesenga, Sports Reporter/Anchor: Another district where all of our local teams are in the same district and unfortunately for the Orioles and Cardinals, Whitehall is also in this district. The Vikings have looked like one of the best teams in the state – regardless of division – all season long. One peak at the scores of their games this season shows how dominant they’ve been, outscoring opponents by a combined 414 to 84. Not to mention, their regular season includes 50+ point wins over three playoff teams (Ludington, Montague and Manistee), a 34-point win over playoff-bound Oakridge, a 54-26 win over perennial powerhouse Unity Christian, and a 41-30 win over Hastings that has proven to be Hastings’ only loss this season. Add that all together and you get six regular season wins over playoff teams, and outside of Hastings none of the games were particularly close. Safe to say, if Ludington or Big Rapids are able to emerge from this district, they will have pulled off one of the most impressive wins in program history.

Greg Miller, Sports Photojournalist: From a local perspective, Division 4 is for the birds. Get it?!  Birds?!  Cardinals and Orioles?!  (Tap, Tap, Tap) Is this thing on?

Okay, in all seriousness, Big Rapids and Ludington both face stiff opening round opponents.  In fact, this region is absolutely loaded.  It has four of the top ten ranked teams, including #1 (G.R. South Christian) and #2 (Whitehall).  Big Rapids gets the unenviable draw of taking on Whitehall.  The Vikings look like a dominant outfit this season, and I’ve heard other media members and coaches talking about them on sidelines this fall.  They’ve only given up 28 total points over the final 7 weeks of the regular season.  Meanwhile, Ludington’s defense is in for a significant challenge.  Fruitport was only held under 30 points once this season.  It would be a (pleasant) surprise to be covering a local team in the Division 4 regionals.

Danielle King, Sports Reporter/Anchor: Big Rapids made it clear when I spoke with them before the season that they were on a mission to get back to a district title appearance, something that the Cardinals haven’t done since 2015. Cardinals’ quarterback Wil Strickler is a force to be reckoned with and has been a driving force behind the team’s 7-2 regular season finish. That will make it a great matchup against Whitehall, a team that looks amazing on paper. Whitehall won its games by a combined point differential of 330 points. That number is also through only eight games played because Muskegon Orchard View forfeited in the season finale. With that said, it’d be easy to underestimate Big Rapids come Friday night, but when the Cardinals needed to show up big against Tri-County they did in order to clinch a share of the conference title. I think we will see them play their best football when they take on Whitehall. Now taking things to Ludington, the Orioles have a group of seniors that are THE guys who know how to play and play to win. The Orioles were dominant in their win over rival Manistee, a game they anticipate every single season. With the playoffs here, I think Ludington will show that capacity to play at its best in big games. I think Ludington will fly by Fruitport in the district opener and find themselves playing for a district title next week.

As the week wears on, we will have similar articles to this for all eight divisions and the two 8-player football divisions. On Tuesday, we will look at Divisions 5-6. On Wednesday, we will break down Divisions 7-8 and on Thursday we will break down the 8-player Divisions 1-2.

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