By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Frankfort and St. Francis in the state football playoffs has become as much of an autumn tradition as fall color tours and Halloween.
This year, though, will be a little different.
For the first time since 1984, both the Panthers and Gladiators were missing when the MHSAA announced the playoff pairings on Sunday. The two powerhouses finished 4-5, ending two of the longest streaks
"Anytime you see something like that, it says a lot about the longevity of a program and the success both us and Frankfort have had," Gladiators coach Greg Vaughan said. "You hate to see it go. I know as far as our season went, we lost to all playoff teams and some undefeated teams that I'm sure will make some good runs in the playoffs. We can hold our head high that those games were all touchdown-type games."
St. Francis actually held the longest streak with 22 consecutive appearances while Frankfort had made the playoffs 17 straight times.
"What a compliment to our kids and our community," Panthers coach Matt Stapleton said. "Really, when you step back and look at it, it means you haven't had a losing season in that many years. That's a lot of good players, assistant coaches and parents that made that happen. Our kids are really proud of that streak, so you can imagine there's some disappointment.
"(The streak) is a great compliment to all of the kids that we've had, including the seniors this year. They were a part of three playoff teams. There's a lot of teams in northern Michigan that can't say that. We've been very blessed and very spoiled as well."
Iron Mountain North Dickinson, which hosts Bessemer this week in the pre-district, now holds the longest current streak in the state at 22 consecutive appearances.
Frankfort's 4-5 record this year included three losses by less than a touchdown. Benzie Central beat them 8-6, Kingsley won 12-6 and Northwest Conference champion Glen Lake squeaked out a 15-12 win over the Panthers. In non-conference games, Frankfort lost to Harbor Springs (43-8) and Kalkaska (42-20).
"We changed our schedule," Stapleton said. "We had two teams that we mercied last year and we replaced them with a couple of teams from the Lake Michigan in Kalkaska and Harbor Springs. So we had five C's and four B's on our schedule, so I think we'll end up being one of the best Class D teams that doesn't make the playoffs."
Since missing the playoffs in 1994, Frankfort rolled off 17 straight trips to the playoffs. There, the Panthers won eight district titles and three regional championships.
"I've got five kids on my team that are 18, but that's it," Stapleton said. "The streak is longer than most of our kids have been alive. That's pretty amazing when you think about it. Already our underclassmen are thinking about it like we have to start our own streak next year. All this means is we're going to want to use the stat that 34 of the last 35 years we were in the playoffs."
St. Francis first made the playoffs in 1983 and has only missed out four times (1984, 1988, 1989, 2012). In its streak 22-year streak, the Gladiators won six state titles, played for another two, captured 12 regional championships and nine districts — which were introduced in 1999.
"It's something our guys have been used to," Vaughan said. "Maybe we take it a little bit for granted how special it is. Our guys, when we get to the playoffs, they aren't in awe of it. They just take the mentality of win and move on. It doesn't have to be pretty, just win and move on. We've been fortunate to be successful.
"It's 20-some years and three different coaches. I think that has a lot to do with it, too. As far as my staff goes, they've all been there for basically those 20 years. Consistency has a lot to do with it."