Dozens of players and fans packed Salem’s gym Sunday night, watching the MHSAA Football Playoffs Selection Show, anxiously awaiting to see if Salem was one of the lucky 5-4 teams to make the Division 1 32-team field.
A collective roar echoed the gym when it was announced Salem earned its first state playoff appearance since 1991. Players jumped around, hugging, singing and chanting while parents and fans took pictures and videos of the treasured moment.
Salem’s reward? It will play at unbeaten Belleville, ranked No. 1 in The Detroit News Super 20 poll.
If Salem somehow pulls off an upset it would face the winner of No. 15 Saline at No. 14 Canton for the district title.
Sure, it matters that Salem is a huge underdog in its attempt to win its first playoff game — it lost in 1991 to Adrian, and to Portage Central in ’77 — but the players and fans were just thrilled to be in the Big Show, putting together the team’s second winning season in the last 20 years.
“I had an idea we made it, but for them, they didn’t and this is a special thing for the parents and these kids who have worked hard to get to this point so it’s pretty neat,” said Salem ninth-year head coach Kurt Britnell.
“We had a home-and-home with them (Belleville) the last two years, obviously didn’t play them this year. They’ve got some athletes over there, but so do we and right now everybody’s zero-and-zero. We’re definitely going to have an ‘Us against Everybody’ kind of mentality, we have to do that to hang our hat on something. We’ll be ready to go.”
Alex Howie, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound tackle, is thrilled to get the chance to play in the playoffs.
“This feels great, something we’ve been working for since we were freshmen,” said Howie who has 14 offers, including Washington State and Indiana, while also getting interest from Michigan State and Iowa. “It’s been 26 years and we’ve all known that coming in so we worked hard and this feels great.
“All season the coaches have been telling us, remember how that John Glenn loss in Week 9 felt like last year and we did, and came out and played hard and finished this year.”
Salem put itself in position to make the playoffs a year ago, entering Week 8 with a 4-3 record before suffering injuries and dropping the final two games, including 40-34 in the finale to John Glenn.
Salem defeated Northville 40-27 Friday, which was the difference between a winning and losing season — and, of course, the playoff spot.
Salem will be facing a Belleville team loaded with Division 1 talent, including Michigan State-bound defensive back Davion Williams, as well as junior defensive back Julian Barnett and junior offensive tackle Devontae Dobbs, both of whom received offers from Alabama, and 6-4, 250-pound offensive lineman Damon Payne, who was already offered by Georgia before he started his high school career this fall.
No doubt Belleville third-year head coach Jermain Crowell recalls all too well his head coaching debut, a 22-12 loss to Salem the last time the teams played on Belleville’s field in 2015. Belleville defeated Salem in the 2016 season opener, 40-19.
While Belleville is unbeaten and ranked No. 1, its last playoff win came 15 years ago. It lost to Saline in a pre-district game last season, 39-7, and to Ann Arbor Pioneer in 2015, 22-7.
Belleville had to battle back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to defeat Temperance Bedford last Friday, 27-24.
“I benched about 17 guys during that first half last week, Christian (freshman quarterback Dhue-Reed) being one, but I think they got the message,” said Crowell, noting the large group of players was late for a walk-through. “Everybody’s healthy and ready to go and I’m sure they all got the message.”
Detroit Western (5-3) earned its first state playoff appearance and will play at Dearborn Fordson in Division 1.
Ypsilanti Lincoln will host its first ever state playoff game, playing Woodhaven in Division 2. Lincoln ended a 30-game losing streak in the 2008 season opener and earned state playoff spots in 2011, ’13 and ’14, but is still in search of its first postseason victory.
Hamtramck looked as if it clinched its first playoff appearance, winning its sixth game in Week No. 8, but had its hearts ripped out with the news it had played with an ineligible player, resulting in the forfeit of all wins.