Catholic League’s Prep Bowl undergoing changes next year

Novi Detroit Catholic Central players celebrate a Prep Bowl victory with fans at Ford Field back in 2016. The Catholic League is changing the Prep Bowl format, effective next season. (Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Annual CHSL tradition to be condensed from three games to two next year in effort to increase interest, competition

DETROIT — Playing in a steady downpour at Eastern Michigan University, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s won the Catholic League’s Bishop Division football championship last October with a 13-0 victory over top seed Novi Detroit Catholic Central. That was just two weeks after the Eaglets lost to the Shamrocks, 20-14, in a regular-season game.

But under a new football championship format recently approved by the Catholic League’s executive board, St. Mary’s wouldn’t have had the chance to play for that title — although Catholic Central would have.

Starting next fall, the Prep Bowl festivities will be condensed from three high school games to two.

The winners of the two Intersectional divisions will continue to clash for the Cardinal Division championship. But now, the Bishop Division title will be decided between the Central and AA Division regular-season champions.

A third championship game, which has been called the “Wild Card Game” or the “Prep Bowl Game” since instituted in 1980, has been removed from the schedule. Most recently, it pitted the top two teams from the AA against each other. University of Detroit-Jesuit won this year, 14-0, against Dearborn Divine Child.

Interestingly, the two coaches who claimed the 2019 titles affected by the revision — St. Mary’s Prep’s George Porritt and University of Detroit Jesuit’s Matt Lewis — don’t think it’s a bad change.

“I think it’s a good idea that we’re doing that,” Porritt said. “Instead of playing back-to-back (games) in your own league, you know you’re going to play the other league for a championship.”

“Going into the (state) playoffs, it’s always good to play a quality opponent the week before, or at least have the opportunity to play a quality opponent,” Lewis said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders before the playoffs start.”

Had the plan been in place this fall, the final would have matched up Catholic Central against U of D Jesuit. In that rivalry, the Shamrocks defeated the Cubs 31-15 when they met in a cross-over contest in September — their 14th straight win over the Cubs, dating back to 2002.

There were several factors driving the new championship format.

One is the sheer number of Catholic League football teams. There were 32 Catholic football squads in five divisions back in 1980 (when Birmingham Brother Rice won the A-B Division championship and Catholic Central took the Wild Card title). Now, there are 18 schools spread over four divisions, so under the recent plan, those two games featured regular-season rematches — and those don’t seem to spur fan interest, Catholic League athletic director Vic Michaels said.

“In terms of excitement, a lot of schools (fans) don’t like to play that second time,” he said. “We don’t see the crowds for our championship when that happens. When De La Salle goes to Catholic Central in Week 8 for the Central Division championship, it’s a great crowd. When they go to Ford Field the next week to play again, it’s not that same crowd. We don’t get that same big crowd that they get the first time.”

“I think it’s what you want — to not see the same teams all the time,” Porritt said. “Coaches were campaigning for (the change). Year after year, you’re playing somebody back-to-back.”

Another factor is the upcoming change in the way the Michigan High School Athletic Association will determine the field for its playoffs, moving from an automatic berth for six wins, and rewarding teams for playing a tougher schedule.

“With the new strength-of-schedule MHSAA playoff schedule, playing a team a second time is not good,” Michaels said. “It hurts more than it has in the past, and nobody wanted that anyways.”

Lewis, who has led U of D Jesuit to post-season berths in both seasons since he became the Cubs coach, said how teams set their schedule is going to matter.

“You want to play better opponents. You want to play big schools that have won some games, but of course you want to win some yourself. You can’t go 2-7, for example, and expect to get in the playoffs.”

Another reason involves adding a touch of intrigue to the Catholic League championship match-up.

“I think a lot of people would like to see that kind of game, you know?” Michaels said. “If U of D’s having a good year, then how good? Let’s see. In a year when Loyola has a great run and wins that division, people would like to see how they would fare against the Central. When Divine Child had teams with Theo Day and Aidan Hutchinson, who both went on to Big Ten football schools, people would have liked to see them play a CC or a De La Salle or a St. Mary’s or a Brother Rice. It might be interesting.”

The Intersectional championship — claimed by Clarkston Everest Collegiate the past two seasons — won’t be affected by the change. Neither will the Catholic Youth Organization championships and exhibition games played earlier in the day.

Michaels said the Prep Bowl Committee will have to devise a new schedule for between-game honors. Those include the Catholic school Educator Awards, the Catholic League football honor teams and the Scholastic All-Catholic Awards — all of which remain important parts of the daylong festivities.

The 2020 Prep Bowl will return to Detroit’s Ford Field, and is scheduled for Oct. 24. The 2019 championship games were played at Eastern Michigan because of a one-time conflict with a country music concert.