Livonia Churchill football remained alive another week, beating rival Livonia Franklin for its second-straight district title Friday night. So head coach Bill DeFillipo was in his office 9 a.m. Sunday to begin the process again: to start the installation of schemes for the regional final against Oak Park.
He knew the state of the world outside of his office — with positive COVID-19 cases on the rise throughout the state with the highest rate of the pandemic. But in the time of playoffs, DeFillipo rarely had time to think about anything else other than his teaching job and football, finding time to rest and relax once the season is officially over.
“You kind of hear it and you see it once in a while, but really, we were fired up to play Oak Park this week,” DeFillipo said. “Everybody was pretty energetic and ready to go.”
As Sunday continued, a coach saw the message come across his phone that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would hold a press conference that night regarding policies to respond to the heightened COVID-19 numbers. Soon after, the coaching staff saw the Michigan High School Athletic Association respond, saying it would release a statement when Whitmer’s address was complete.
In other words, DeFillipo knew it was not good.
The state and the MHSAA announced Sunday that the football, volleyball, and girls swim and dive playoff tournaments would be postponed, along with all winter sports, during the state’s “three-week pause” to combat the coronavirus pandemic, closing high schools for in-person learning from Nov. 18 to Dec. 8.
Four high school football teams from the area remain in the hunt for a state title: Detroit Catholic Central in Division 1, Churchill and North Farmington in Division 2 and Detroit Country Day in Division 4.
Prior to the start of the playoffs, DeFillipo was honest with his players about the rising case count, saying it could be a real question as to whether or not the state would make it to the finals.
But as the weeks continued, the focus turned inward, with the team focusing its attention on what could have been history.
“We’re down to the final eight teams,” DeFillipo said. “We have a great group of kids. And obviously you have to play and execute and not screw things up, but we felt if we played well, we had as good a shot as anyone to get to the finals and even win it.
“We said, as a staff, if somebody beat us, then it is what it is. But when you are alive and well, to get it removed when you are this close to the final, it is pretty tough to deal with.”
Jon Herstein, the head football coach at North Farmington, had a similar approach to DeFillipo, saying the Raiders were focused on what they could control, preparing for what they could do in a stretch where the team had found a level of rhythm on the field.
“The guys are figuring things out and coming together as a team and just learning more and more about football,” Herstein said. “You think about it, they missed a lot of 7-on-7, a lot of summer camp, starting and stopping. We really try and work a lot with our guys throughout the year, so they had missed so much that I think they were starting to find their stride and coming together. “
The waiting game begins
But as soon as the announcement from the state and the MHSAA was released, DeFillipo quickly turned to his calendar.
If football is permitted to return Dec. 8, a Wednesday, the Churchill head coach said the regional final would likely not be played until Dec. 18 or 19, leaving the state semifinals to be played the weekends of Christmas and New Year’s Day — the time when students are off for a holiday break.
With that schedule coming out of the three-week hiatus, as scheduled currently, DeFillipo doubts that football will be played in December.
Instead, he said, his thoughts turned more toward what the MHSAA originally planned when the football season was initially canceled Aug. 14: using four weeks in the late winter and early spring months to get the final three games in.
Detroit Catholic Central head coach Dan Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.
But with a three-week period seemingly separating teams that remain alive for a state title and an answer as to whether it would be played, the uncertainty brings back familiar feelings from July and August.
“We don’t know when they will move it back or if they will move it back,” Herstein said. “It’s, I guess, kind of go back to the part where you are just kind of like, ‘All right, this is where we are at. We’re going to focus on the things we can control right now and just take it in those steps as it comes.’”
Football teams will now turn toward virtual training and learning, resorting to Zoom meetings to allow players to treat injuries and remain physically and mentally sharp ahead of a possible return to the field.
The suddenness of the change sparked frustration from DeFillipo.
“I get the situation, I’m not complaining about the situation, I understand that,” DeFillipo said. “But it would be really, really nice to be able to get our kids together and be able to take care of them and say ‘OK, we don’t have all the answers, but here’s the deal. Here’s what we are going to do from now on.’
“Now we are just going to be looking at our kids in a little square of a computer screen.”
Now the football teams that remain in contention are in a holding pattern. Both DeFillipo and Herstein remain confident that their teams will be ready to pick up where they left off in the postseason, regain that momentum and fire when the players touch the field again.
The waiting game has begun. But Herstein knows his players will be ready to go at a moment’s notice to take on Traverse City Central in the regional final.
“For us, we will go from taking a coach bus to Traverse City to taking snowmobiles,” Herstein said with a laugh.
Contact reporter Colin Gay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 248-330-6710. Follow him on Twitter @ColinGay17. Send game results and stats to Liv-Sports@hometownlife.com.