Ishpeming out of Division 7

MARQUETTE – For the first time in their history, the Ishpeming High School football team will in all likelihood drop from Division 7 to Division 8 for this season.

The change was mostly part due to a dropped co-operative agreement with Republic-Michigamme, who in the past had produced a handful of players for the Hematites.

Division classification is determined once the list of playoff teams is established each October and is based solely on school enrollment. In a co-op like the Ishpeming-R-M one, the enrollment is the total of the schools involved.

Even though R-M Schools only lists 50 students according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the absence of that number is showing that if – unlike most years when the operative word was “when” – Ishpeming makes the playoffs it will be in Division 8.

Now with a record of 3-3, the Hematites must defeat either St. Ignace or Gwinn in the final two weeks to have any chance of qualifying for the playoffs, or win both to get what has historically been called a “guaranteed” spot.

The MHSAA has been able to invite every 5-3 or 6-3 team in since the state doubled the number of teams qualifying to 256 by adding another week to the playoff schedule in 1999.

The “automatic” qualifiers list is then filled out with a number of 4-4 and 5-4 teams to bring the number to 256, which divides evenly into eight groups of 32 schools, and 32 can be whittled to a single champion with five weeks of playoffs.

Ishpeming has made the playoffs 15 of a possible 16 times since the doubling of playoff teams. In 1999 and 2000, the Hematites played in Division 6, then has been in Division 7 since.

Ishpeming athletic director Terry Roberts said the drop of the R-M co-operative was a collective decision.

“Everyone from the school board to the coaches, athletic department and other members of the community felt this was the best choice for our season,” Roberts said. “This helps us stack up against other programs that run with a similar amount of students that we’re carrying and putting on the field as well.”

The absence of R-M players left the number of players starting the season for the Hematites at 21, opposed to last season when Ishpeming carried 33.

Ishpeming head coach Jeff Olson, who has led the Hematites to three state championships in the last four seasons, said the severed co-op has affected his team’s depth this season.

“It’s always nice to have one or two extra kids (coming from Republic),” Olson said. “It’s hurt us this year with our team being depleted.

“We had four starters out against Norway, and we’re moving forward with four starters out (last) week. When you only start with 21 kids on the season, that drops us to 17, which is the lowest we’ve seen on this team in a long time.

“Our depth has definitely seen a toll taken from this.”

While the regular-season schedule wasn’t different this season, Ishpeming would face teams in postseason play they have not played in recent years if they enter in Division 8.

Olson said that a Division 8 playoff picture would not be any more challenging than the Division 7 playoffs his team has competed in for a long time.

“There’s not a lot of difference when you’re going up or down from one class in terms of competition,” Olson said. “It’s not easier or harder on us, other than possibly not knowing what to expect out of a team as opposed to having a good understanding of teams we’ve played in the past.”

Roberts said if all goes according to plan, the co-op with Republic-Michigamme could be back in place with the team probably moving back to Division 7 for 2017.

“There are a number of eighth-grade students at Republic who are giving us hope to renew the co-op,” Roberts said. “They’re expected to reach the high school level next season, and we’re encouraging them to continue playing football and help with a few additions to our team.”

Ray Bressette can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 243. His email address is rbressette@miningjournal.net.