By CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Never mind that St. Francis is going to be making an eight-hour road trip to the Upper Peninsula this week.
Forget that the Gladiators are coming off a 42-0 loss to Muskegon Catholic Central on Friday night.
All is well for the Gladiators, who found out Sunday that they are back in the prep football playoffs.
After a one-year absence from the postseason — St. Francis's first year missing the playoffs in more than two decades — it is ready to return to postseason football when it faces undefeated Iron River West Iron County (9-0) in a Division 7 contest.
"Obviously, after last year not making it for the first time in 23 years, getting in is a big thing for us," said St. Francis head coach Greg Vaughan. "We'll see what we can do. We've played them in the past. They're always a tough team. Any time you go up against an Upper Peninsula team you know you're going to get tough-nosed kids; very strong kids. We're just excited we're in the playoffs."
St. Francis last played West Iron County in a 2008 regional game, which the Gladiators won 35-12 on the way to winning the Division 7 state title.
St. Francis (5-4) was one of 31 teams out of the field of 256 that made the playoffs despite not gaining automatic qualification by win total. Teams playing a nine-game schedule immediately qualify by winning six games and those with an eight-game schedule only need to win five.
One of the other 31 non-automatic qualifiers? Traverse City West (5-4), which will meet Rockford in a Division 1 first-round contest this weekend in Rockford. The Rams (8-1) have been a postseason thorn in the Titans' side, eliminating them in six of the last seven postseason appearances West has made, including a 38-7 win in 2012.
Glen Lake (8-1) is one of the few teams from the area who are hosting a game as it drew Lakeview (7-2) in Division 6.
"I think that was one of our goals at the beginning of the year, to have someone come and play at our place," said Glen Lake coach Jerry Angers. "We have a great field and great facilities. It will be fun to host a team. I think it's a huge advantage."
Also in Division 6, but in a different district, Boyne City (7-2) is hosting Elk Rapids (6-3), a team the Ramblers beat 28-12 two weeks ago.
"Both teams are pretty familiar with each other, given that we've played each other in conference play year after year," said Elk Rapids coach Ed Schindler. "We're looking forward to going back up to Boyne City. We're just happy that it's local, that we're not driving up to the U.P. to play, which is our normal first-round draw. It makes it easier."
Another team that has had to make frequent trips to the Upper Peninsula in recent playoffs is Grayling (8-1), which gets to host Kingsford (7-2) this time around in Division 5. The Flivvers knocked off the Vikings 35-14 last season in a first-round game. Grayling has hosted two playoff games in head coach Tim Sanchez's tenure and won both.
"We're excited to be able to host a game. We're excited to get a rematch from last year. This time it's at our place," said Sanchez. "It's not fun traveling, but it's also the whole expense that's involved with it — the planning and preparing that goes along with it. It's just an extra headache that's nice not to have to deal with this week.
"We have a ton of respect for coach (Chris) Hofer and his staff. They always have their kids well prepared and he's a good guy."
In another Division 5 district, Standish-Sterling (7-1) hosts Kingsley (6-3), with the winner meeting the winner of Kalkaska (6-3) at Gladwin (7-2).
The St. Francis-West Iron County winner will advance to face whichever team emerges from Mancelona (7-2) at Ishpeming (9-0) — a rematch of a district final Ishpeming won 32-0 last year on the way to winning a state championship. Whittemore-Prescott (6-3) travels to Lake City (8-1) in another Division 7 district.
In Division 4, Big North champion Cadillac (9-0) hosts Remus Chippewa Hills (6-3), while Ogemaw Heights (6-3) travels to Cheboygan (7-2) for a rematch of last year's first round game won by Ogemaw, 41-6.
In Division 8, Johannesburg-Lewiston (7-2) hosts Atlanta (5-4), while in the 8-man playoffs Bellaire (5-4) travels to Kinde-North Huron (6-3).