Should it take place as scheduled, the 2020 football season will mark a new era in the way the MHSAA determines its state champions. The state will be switching from a system that automatically qualifies any team with six wins to a system where the playoff field is determined by the Michigan Power Rating, which emphasizes strength of schedule and considers the size of the schools you play.

The six-win automatic-qualifier system had been in place since 1999, but the coaches’ association approved the new plan last year.

As part of that switch, divisions will now be determined prior to the season; previously, the divisions were determined by which teams qualified for the playoffs.

That’s a switch that, for now, looks to be a positive for Hart and Shelby, which each play several bigger schools per year by virtue of being in the West Michigan Conference; however, with the WMC potentially adding schools and going to a two-tiered league in the future, that advantage might be mitigated.

“We’re a Division 6 school,” Hart coach Rick Witteveen said (Shelby is also D-6, and fellow Oceana school Hesperia is D-7). “We might have to look at it a little different if our conference (moves to) tiers. Right now, we’re going to pick up points from the bigger schools.

“We have to work to be competitive. What’s really huge is if the smaller schools can knock off a big school or two. That would be tremendous. You have to go at it the same way each season, to work to be competitive and to get to the fourth quarter with an opportunity to win.”

The adjustment has already had an effect on at least one county school’s schedule. Shelby had opened its season with Grant for 12 seasons in a row, but since Grant is a Division 5 school and Shelby is in D-6, Grant opted out of future games so it could schedule larger schools. Its opener this year is against Comstock Park, while Shelby will open things up with a game against Division 7 Pine River. The latter will be the first meeting between the teams.

With three other Class B schools in the WMC, though, Shelby won’t be hurting for quality foes. (The Tigers themselves will be in Class B in the 2020-21 academic year, thanks to their enrollment being at its highest point since 2015.)

“I’m sure that (the change) prompted them to say, ‘let’s go find someone that helps us with the playoff points,’” Tigers’ coach Lorenzo Rodriguez said of Grant. “I don’t think we’ll have that issue as far as playing (bigger schools).”

Hesperia, meanwhile, also tweaked their non-league schedule for 2020, replacing tough games with North Muskegon and Ludington with more manageable battles with Manton and St. Louis. Panthers’ coach Doug Bolles said both decisions were his school’s, although under the new system, both the Norsemen and Orioles were likely pleased to make the switch as well. (Hesperia retained its final two opponents from last year, Orchard View and Shelby.)

Unlike Hart and Shelby, Hesperia is already in a conference populated by small schools, the Central State Activities Association Silver. Bolles said he doesn’t consider the new system a help or a hindrance for Hesperia.

“With the teams on our schedule, I’d say it’s probably neutral for me as far as our chances to make the playoffs,” Bolles said.

Shelby and Hesperia, being close in terms of enrollment, is a series that shows no signs of going away, even though the Tigers are in Class B this year.

“We’ll keep Hesperia on,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll keep that intact for years to come as long as both schools agree and stick with it. It’s a good county rivalry.”

Of course, the issue of the 2020 season remains up in the air. No one can know for sure what the world will look like come August due to COVID-19, and in turn what the status of high school sports will be. Without the ability to connect for in-person conditioning work and weightlifting, which would normally be a fixture of spring and summer activity for football players, coaches have been working around that however they can.

“We’ve been doing a handful of webinars with our kids, Google hangouts, going over schemes and schedules and all that stuff,” Shelby coach Lorenzo Rodriguez said; Rodriguez has the advantage of being tech-savvy, as his day job is technical director for Walkerville Public Schools. “We’re putting on all these ‘Football 101s’...Some of them are Q&A types of setups, where kids ask questions that would come up during a week of practice. I tell the kids, (bring up) anything you have with offenses, defenses, schemes. Sometimes we’ll go through a scheme and throw the scenarios out there, and we go through that tooth and nail.”

As far as physically keeping kids sharp, all the coaches can do is connect virtually with their players and offer suggested workouts. Witteveen said the Pirates have used the website Hudl to share game film and workout information.

“You can’t face-to-face contact, so you hope a bunch of them are doing stuff,” Witteveen said. “Some of them are. Hopefully a lot of them are.”

Rodriguez added that if players don’t have weights available to them, he and his staff have tried to offer workarounds, teaching players how to fashion weights out of common household objects like large buckets.

“It seems like our kids want to be active,” Rodriguez said. “As locked down as everybody is, they’re reaching out and asking...and I think they’re physically doing those things to keep themselves occupied, which is awesome for all of us.”

No one knows how this fall will play out. Each county coach claims to be optimistic, while also worrying about the possibility their senior players might not get a final run on the gridiron.

“From talking to others, it doesn’t sound promising,” Bolles said. “I pray we have a season, especially for my upcoming seniors.”

For Rodriguez, the senior issue hits inside his own home. His son and starting quarterback, also named Lorenzo, will be a senior this fall.

“I’ve definitely thought about that, and thought about it on a personal level,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t want to think about that situation. I know we have to because of the logistics of things, but we’re praying every day that we get to have a season, especially for his sake. Him being a senior, that would be terrible (if we didn’t).”

Witteveen said his team is preparing as if the season will be played. His Pirates generally participate in 7-on-7 scrimmages with Mason County Central and their coach, Scott Briggs, and both men have agreed not to cancel those until absolutely necessary. Hart’s team camp isn’t until late July, which provides a fair bit of runway before any decisions have to be made. He said he hopes that by June, the coaches will be able to work with, at least, smaller groups of players; the current stay-at-home order in the state goes through May 28.

Everyone agrees, though: They want football to come this fall, to give the county something to rally around, to give the players those lasting memories, and hopefully to make a run at the playoffs under the new system.

“With everything being shut down, people really realize how much sports gives them: Not only the kids but the families and the communities,” Witteveen said. “I’m just hoping for the kids, the schools, the communities, we have a football season next year.”