Essexville '84 high school team ushered in playoff system change MHSAA expanded playoff format to 64 teams after slight

By Lee Thompson

The Bay City Times

ESSEXVILLE, Mich. (AP) -- They thought they were unbeatable.

And nobody proved them wrong.

But as the players from the undefeated 1984 Essexville Garber football team watch this year's playoffs unfold, they cannot reminisce about a postseason experience of their own.

Despite taking on all challengers, beating everybody in their path and going 9-0 in the regular season, these unbeaten Dukes were denied a playoff berth.

"We were 9-0, and nobody can take it away from us," said Chris Foret, a fullback on the '84 squad. "But it felt like they took it away from us back then."

In today's era -- when 256 teams qualified for the 2011 high school football playoffs, including 24 with just five wins on the season -- it seems unimaginable that a nine-win team wouldn't be invited to the big dance.

But 1984 was a different era, when just 32 teams statewide were granted postseason berths. And it was this band of Garber Dukes who helped usher in a time of change.

The following season, the MHSAA expanded its playoff format to include 64 teams in four classes. By 1990 it expanded to 128 teams in eight classes, and in 1999 it blossomed to the current format of 256 teams in eight divisions.

"In a way, we paved the way for all 9-0 teams that followed," 1984 Garber quarterback Kevin Spencer said. "People were saying 'That team is 9-0 and not getting in? That's wrong.' And the system changed from there.

"It happened a year too late for us. But sometimes in life things don't work out the way you want, and you've got to live with it."

So for the past 27 years, the Dukes have lived with the bittersweet memories of 1984.

And plenty was sweet about that season to remember. Coming off a playoff campaign in 1983 -- when they only went 8-1 -- the Dukes were a senior-laden squad with high expectations under veteran coach Ed Harvey.

Fronted by explosive 1,000-yard running back Bill Badour, a powerful fullback in Foret and a menacing front line featuring the likes of Mike Laisure, Matt Wiesenauer, Dean Verhaeghe and Jim Zacharko, Garber was golden on offense. And the Brian Kloha- and Pat Kotewa-led defense was nearly as formidable.

"Right from the first play of the year, when Bill Badour ran one back about 85 yards, we were thinking 'Whoa! This is going to be kinda fun,'" Spencer said. "Right from that point, we were confident we were going to be pretty good."

Garber never missed a beat, storming to its second straight Tri-Valley championship. It knocked off five teams that finished with winning records, even rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to hand Birch Run its only loss of the year.

It capped the regular season by beating Saginaw Eisenhower -- something the playoff team of 1983 could not do -- then waited to hear its playoff fate.

But there was a catch. Only two teams from each Class B region were invited to the playoffs, and Chesaning and Saginaw Nouvel -- which won in double-overtime in Week 9 -- also finished at 9-0. Based on a playoff points formula, Garber's destiny oddly rested in a Saturday game played between Taylor Center and Taylor Kennedy. A win by Center, which Nouvel had defeated during the year, gave Nouvel one-tenth of a point more than Garber.

And the Garber season -- perfect in every way -- had ended in the most imperfect manner.

"It was bad news, to say the least," Harvey said the next day in The Bay City Times. "They were planning a celebration tonight. This kind of puts a damper on things. I guess the only thing we can do now is pack up the equipment."

During the early seasons of the MHSAA playoffs, which began in 1975, a handful of teams suffered a similar fate. Among schools in the Times area, it happened to Roscommon in 1975, Johannesburg-Lewiston in 1976 and Gladwin in 1979. It hit closer to home when both the 1980 Bay City All Saints and the 1981 Pinconning teams finished 9-0 with nowhere to go.

But when it happened to Garber, Laker and Houghton Lake in 1984, they would be the last of their kind. Expansion followed in 1985, giving unbeaten teams the opportunity to go for the Pontiac Silverdome or bust.

"How far we would have went, I don't know," said Spencer, who went on to coach football for 19 years at Midland Dow. "But I would have liked to put our best out there against their best."

That 1984 season stood as Garber's last 9-0 campaign until 2002, and it came as part of an incredible stretch of 23 wins in 24 regular season games for the Dukes. It was a year where the Dukes had it all, except the playoff drama.

"Every time we get together, we talk about it," said Foret, whose son now plays for Garber. "I still have a VHS tape of our games, and every once in a while we'll break it out and watch the old games and the old hits -- and there were some pretty good ones.

"When I tell the kids we were 9-0 and didn't make the playoffs, they can't believe it. They always say 'How can that be?' And I always tell them 'That was back when the men played, boys, back when the men played.' "

Published: Wed, Nov 23, 2011

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