PHOTO CREDIT: Northpointe Christian High School Facebook Page
Change is always in the air in high school athletics. The latest change for five MHSAA schools will be the formation of a new conference on the gridiron. The Tri-River 8-Player Football Conference, which is set to kick off its inaugural season this fall, is named after the three major rivers (Grand, Kalamazoo and Raisin) that run through some part of the county that each school in the league is located.
The five-school league will consist of (2020-21 enrollment and primary athletic conference):
Britton-Deerfield (Tri-County Conference, 171)
Concord (Big 8 Conference, 242)
Maple Valley (Greater Lansing Activities Conference, 284)
Northpointe Christian (OK Silver, 311)
Vandercook Lake (Cascades Conference, 231)
Britton Deerfield will begin their first season of 8-player football in 2021. The Patriots played ten years of 11-man football, posting a 33-63 record with five trips to the playoffs. Their most successful season was 2012, when they posted an 8-4 record on their way to a regional finals berth. Last fall, they went 1-6 as a member of the Tri-County Conference, with a win over Pittsford and a loss to Ottawa Lake Whiteford in the Division 8 playoffs. According to Head Coach Erik Johnson, Britton Deerfield has fielded an 8-player team at the JV level the past two seasons.
Concord will be in their first full season of 8-player football. A year ago, they started the season as an 11-player football team, and they ended the year playing an 8-man regular season game (a win over Bangor), as well as playing in the 8-player “Division 0” unofficial playoff (suffering a loss to Bridgman). Their overall record was 1-6 a season ago. The Yellow Jackets fielded a JV 8-player team last fall as well. Concord had made six trips to the 11-player playoffs, most recently in 2019. In 2001, they had their best season of the playoff era, advancing to the Division 7 semifinals.
Maple Valley is the “senior” school when it comes to 8-player football in this conference. It will be their third season playing 8-player, posting a 7-9 record in that span. The Lions were 3-5 in 2019, and they went 4-4 a season ago. Last year’s team started 1-3 before winning their final two regular season games. In the 8-player “Division 0” unofficial playoff, they took down Vandercook Lake before falling to Bridgman in the finals. In their 11-player football history, they made fifteen playoff appearances, including a 1997 Class CC Runner-Up finish, falling 6-0 to Muskegon Oakridge.
Northpointe Christian is set to start its first year of 8-player football this fall. In thirteen years of 11-player football, they posted a 79-50 record with nine trips to the playoffs. In 2014 and 2015, they reached the Division 6 semifinals. Last year, the Mustangs were 2-5 in the OK Silver, falling to North Muskegon in their Division 7 playoff opener.
Vandercook Lake is set to kick off their second season of 8-player football. Last year, they posted a 4-2 record, with a loss in the 8-player “Division 0” unofficial playoffs against Maple Valley. In their 11-player football history, the Jayhawks made two trips to the playoffs (1996, 2015), losing both years in the first round.
Concord and Vandercook Lake have frequently been opponents on the gridiron. They last played in 2008, when Vandercook Lake captured a 39-29 victory, and until 1972 they were in the same conference. Since 1950, Vandercook Lake holds a 22-10-2 series advantage.
Maple Valley and Vandercook Lake have met just once, in last year’s playoffs. The Lions won 22-6.
Northpointe Christian and Britton-Deerfield have never faced any opponents within the new Tri-River football conference.
Concord and Vandercook Lake benefit the most from the geography of this new league. The average distance from their opponents is about 55 miles for both schools. Maple Valley is on average 65 miles from their opponents, while Britton Deerfield is at 81 miles. Northpointe Christian is an average of 101 miles from their fellow league mates, with all but Maple Valley (53) at least 100 miles away. The trip from Concord to Vandercook Lake is the shortest in the conference at 15 miles. Travelling between Britton Deerfield to Northpointe Christian will be the longest trip at 143 miles.
Britton Deerfield Athletic Director Erik Johnson: “Talks amongst the school’s AD’s began just before Christmas 2020, with the same big goal in mind. We wanted to give all our football athletes a rewarding high school experience, which we believe includes competing for a conference championship and allowing our student athletes to still be recognized for All Conference honors. We also hope that this makes scheduling easier from year to year for each of our schools. As coaches, we have talked about the hope of participation increasing and eventually being able to transition back to 11-player football, but until then, and with today’s current climate and issues, we believe this is the best for each of our football programs moving forward.”
Concord Athletic Director Matt Lehman: “I am excited for our kids. Many years we have struggled to finish the season on both JV & Varsity due to injuries and attrition. Moving to 8-player football helps alleviate some of those concerns. Last year we had 30 kids total come out for football. Having 15 kids on a team for 8-player football is much better and safer than for 11-player football. Each of the teams in the league faced the dilemma of trying to find games. We decided that forming a league would be the best way for us to put together a schedule and have realistic travel distances.”
Maple Valley Athletic Director Landon Wilkes: “I am excited for this grouping of schools to give our program some stability. Scheduling can be difficult, so it will be nice to have this league to have some continuity there. Unlike our previous seasons, the familiarity of our opponents and the scouting of those teams will be a nice change.”
Northpointe Christian Athletic Director Shon Cottle: “I am excited to team up with some other schools in similar situations to ourselves, allowing our student athletes to have the opportunity to be recognized for their accomplishments on the field with honors such as All Conference.”