Football teams’ success translates to difficulty filling schedules

METRO DETROIT — Aaron Babicz has a problem.

His task as athletic director at Novi Detroit Catholic Central is to put together a football schedule. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously.

“If there are any open dates on the schedule, if I don’t give the kids a full (8-game) schedule, I’m cheating them as well as the community,” he said.

Babicz

Babicz wasn’t able to fill out last fall’s schedule until July, when Toledo St. John agreed to play. “That stressed me out,” he said. “I’m glad I’m bald. Otherwise, I’d be losing massive amounts of hair.”

Babicz’s larger problem is shared by other athletic directors in the Catholic League Central Division and other private or public schools that have winning football programs: No one wants to play them in football.

It all revolves around Michigan’s playoff system: to be eligible for the playoffs and a shot at a state championship, high school gridiron squads must win six games to automatically qualify for one of 32 slots in each of eight divisions.

If any of the 32 spots cannot be filled by the six-win rule, schools with five wins may qualify, but under a complex playoff point system devised by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Some 20 teams with five wins qualified in 2011.

As of mid-April, Brother Rice, CC and Warren De La Salle have a full schedule. But defending Division 3 champ Orchard Lake St. Mary’s has Week 5 open, and Detroit U-D Jesuit has weeks 2 and 6, a development that caught athletic director Nick Kocsis off guard.

Within a three-week period recently, Kocsis had game contracts broken by a pair of area public schools. “They said something about previous commitments or some such thing,” Kocsis said.

The Shamrocks (Week 4) and De La Salle (Week 6) filled out their schedules by agreeing to play the Niagara Academy of Sports, a high school in Vineland, Ontario, an hour south of Toronto and 45 minutes from Niagara Falls. Tuition at the atheltic-focused academy is $18,000 for a 10-month program.

Kocsis said he has a “unique perspective” on the problem. Before he came to U-D Jesuit last summer, he was an assistant football coach for seven years at Zeeland East High School on the west side of the state.

“For three years, we went 1-26. Everybody wanted to be our friend. We had no scheduling problem. But when we turned things around (11-1 in 2010, for example), no one wanted to play us.”

After filling four league playing dates among themselves, the CHSL’s five Central Division teams are forced to find four more games playing teams from outside the Metro area.

Picking up a game within the Catholic League — perhaps Dearborn Divine Child or Pontiac Notre Dame Prep from the AA Division — won’t happen, said Catholic High School League Director Vic Michaels, because of differences in the size and skill of the teams. “It’s a safety issue,” he said.

Catholic schools in Toledo and Cleveland have shown up frequently on Central Division teams’ schedules in recent years. However, even that’s becoming difficult because Ohio teams face the same playoff situation as Michigan teams.

Jack Wallace, immediate past president of the Michigan Football Coaches Association, said the scheduling difficulty issue “is recognized by both MHSAA and the association.”
An alumnus of Southgate Aquinas, where he played football under Catholic Central’s Tom Mach, he coaches football at East Lansing after 31 years at Fowlerville, including 18 as athletic director.

“There’s a lot of talk and discussion, but no answer now” to the problem, he said. If and when a solution comes, “it’ll be at least two years away” before the present playoff system is changed.

“Success is a gift or a curse,” philosophized Babicz.

His whiskers are becoming an endangered species.