By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Five months have passed since the first football practices of this season.
But 24 hours from now, 16 11-player teams will have earned tickets to the destination they’ve been dreaming about since long before those first snaps of the fall.
The last outdoor MHSAA football games of January 2021 will send 15 more teams to Ford Field for the Jan. 22-23 Finals, with Semifinals to be played all over the Lower Peninsula (and one finalist already decided as Centreville will advance after a forfeit).
Spectators remain limited this weekend, but every game will be streamed live by FOX Sports Detroit or MHSAA.com – Click for the list of broadcasts.
Visit the MHSAA Football Playoff Home for Saturday’s entire schedule and scores as they come in, and see below for a glance at the matchups that will determine this season’s championship weekend field.
Davison (10-0) at Rockford (8-0)
Reigning Division 1 champion Davison might be missing quarterback Brendan Sullivan, now at Northwestern, but Dion Brown Jr. stepped in mightily last week after leading the team in receiving prior to the move. Carter Cryderman (848 yards/11 TDs) paces a rushing attack averaging 215 yards per game. The Rams have succeeded with a similar style, averaging 222 yards on the ground with lead back Ethan Nash and quarterback Zak Ahern combining for 1,217 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing. Ahern also has 20 touchdowns passes.
West Bloomfield (9-1) at Belleville (10-0)
Two of the most exciting offensive stars in the state will face off among a collection of future college players taking the field in this Semifinal. West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards ran for four touchdowns in last week’s return-to-play Regional Final win over Romeo, while Belleville quarterback Christian Dhue-Reid threw three touchdowns passes as the Tigers handed Detroit Cass Tech its lone loss of this season.
Traverse City Central (9-1) at Muskegon Mona Shores (10-0)
Shores quarterback Brady Rose started his star run stepping in for an injured all-stater at last year’s Final and leading the Sailors to the Division 2 title. Now he has his team one win from returning to Ford Field having run for 1,057 yards and 17 touchdowns and thrown for 949 yards and 10 scores this season. The Trojans are playing for their first Finals berth since 1988, before the old Traverse City High split into Central and West. Josh Burnham is another standout quarterback, with 903 yards and 18 TDs rushing and 1,215 yards and 16 scores through the air.
Oak Park (5-5) at Warren De La Salle Collegiate (6-4)
Oak Park is one of the best stories so far of this playoffs, as it entered the first all-in postseason in MHSAA football history with a single victory. Running back Davion Primm is another of the top talents in the entire state and the focus of an offense that scored 25 points total over five regular-season games followed by a combined 119 over four playoff wins. The Pilots will attempt to end that dream run, in part with a defense that has given up only 23 points during the postseason. Brady Drogosh (949 yards/9 TDs passing) directs a balanced attack.
Muskegon (9-1) vs. DeWitt (10-0) at Lansing Catholic
These two have met in the playoffs two of the last three seasons, and Muskegon won the 2019 Semifinal matchup 28-21. Senior Amari Crowley is the Big Reds’ latest standout quarterback; he’s thrown for 1,008 yards and 12 touchdowns and run for 884 yards and 13 scores. DeWitt also has a playmaking QB, with Tyler Holtz throwing for 2,109 yards and 31 scores – and equally important will be a defense that gives up only 157 total yards per game. The Panthers also must stop running back Jacarri Kitchen, who averages 11.3 yards per carry and has 1,098 total over 10 games.
River Rouge (8-1) at Chelsea (10-0)
Reigning Division 3 champion River Rouge is a win away from what would be a third championship game appearance in six seasons, and with quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski again one of the toughest to stop in any division. Chelsea is playing in a Semifinal for the third-straight season and also hoping to make the Finals for the third time in six seasons. The Bulldogs also have enjoyed one of the state’s top game changers, receiver Joe Taylor, who has caught 14 touchdowns passes, run for two scores and returned a kickoff for one more.
Cadillac (7-2) at Edwardsburg (9-0)
The Eddies are running for their third championship game appearance in four seasons, and as always running for a ton with 3,098 yards in only eight games on the field (the ninth was a forfeit). They’re averaging 55 points per game with their top two rushers, Jackson Hoover and Brett Allen, both averaging at least 14 yards per carry. Cadillac is making its first appearance in the Semifinals and following the same strategy. The Vikings have run for 2,507 yards, with top rusher Aden Gurden gaining 878 on 8.4 per carry.
Detroit Country Day (7-2) vs. Williamston (9-1) at Okemos
Reigning Division 4 runner-up Country Day is playing to reach its third championship game in five seasons. The Yellowjackets were able to get only four games in during the regular season but have played the same number during the playoffs and downed unbeaten North Branch last week. Jacob Yarberry is a playmaker to watch on both sides of the field. The Hornets have been on the verge as well with this their second Semifinal in three seasons. Williamston’s attack is tough on both fronts; quarterback Luke Mahaney guides an offense that has nearly equal yardage and touchdowns rushing and passing.
Freeland (9-1) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (9-0)
The Cougars claimed the Division 4 title last season, their third in four years, and are riding a 21-game winning streak. They returned last week with their highest-scoring performance since 2018, a 58-7 win over Muskegon Oakridge. Freeland’s 14th-straight winning season has landed the Falcons in their first Semifinal since 1998. Four players have scored at least six touchdowns; leading rusher Jacob Kundinger (519 yards) is one of three with a team-best eight touchdowns.
Lansing Catholic (8-2) at Frankenmuth (10-0)
The Eagles are attempting to reach the Finals for the first time, but standing in the way is reigning Division 5 champion Lansing Catholic. Junior Alex Watters stepped in at quarterback last week and finished with 153 yards rushing with a touchdown and 73 yards and a score passing. Frankenmuth will be playing in its third Semifinal in five seasons, this time paced by a running attack averaging 286 yards per game. Cole Lindow is the top ground gainer with 907 yards, plus 12 scores, with quarterback Davin Reif adding more than 800 yards rushing and throwing.
Grayling (7-3) at Montague (10-0)
After winning Division 6 in 2018, the Wildcats missed a return trip to the Finals by a one-point Semifinal loss last fall. Quarterback Drew Collins is leading the return attempt, topping the team in rushing with 638 yards (with 16 touchdowns) while passing for 1,640 yards and 20 scores. After two straight 3-6 seasons, Grayling has reached its first Semifinal with a six-game winning streak. David Millikin is averaging 10.1 yards per carry and 151 per game, with 29 rushing touchdowns total.
Constantine (9-1) at Clinton (9-1)
Clinton will be playing in its first Semifinal since 2015 after winning its last two playoff games, over unbeaten opponents, by a combined four points. Constantine has reached nine wins and the Semifinals both for the first time since 2012. The Falcons are averaging an obliterating 524 yards and 7.5 touchdowns on the ground per game.
Traverse City St. Francis (8-2) at Cass City (10-0)
Cass City earned home field for its Semifinal with a road win last week over undefeated Ithaca. This will be the second-straight appearance in this round for the Red Hawks, who average 339 rushing yards per game behind backs Alex Perry (897 yards/13 TDs) and Jordan Mester (847/11 TDs). St. Francis also dominates in the ground game, averaging 215 rush yards per game led by Owen Mueller (523 yards/5 TDs) among a large group of contributing backs.
Schoolcraft (9-1) at New Lothrop (9-0)
The Hornets will be playing in their third Semifinal in six seasons and are looking to win their second Division 7 title in three seasons. No opponent has scored more than 16 points against them, which works well with an offense scoring 50 points per game. Quarterback Cam Orr (1,721 yards/24 TDs passing, 569 yards/16 TDs rushing) is among standouts. Schoolcraft turned its third-straight Regional Finals run into its first Semifinal since 2001. Alex Thole has thrown for 2,288 yards and 32 touchdowns. The Eagles downed reigning Division 7 runner-up Jackson Lumen Christi 29-22 last week and handed Division 6 semifinalist Constantine its only loss, in the season opener.
Ubly (8-2) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (10-0)
Johannesburg-Lewiston also earned a home Semifinal after a Regional Final road trip, edging Iron Mountain 7-6 last week at the Superior Dome. Sheldon Huff paces another dominating running attack, averaging 9.3 yards per carry for 1,295 total and 16 touchdowns on the ground. This will be the Cardinals’ first Semifinal since 1998, but Ubly’s second straight and third in four seasons. The Bearcats missed Ford Field in 2019 with a one-point loss to Beal City.
NOTE: Centreville (10-0) advanced to the Division 8 Final after Clarkston Everest Collegiate had to withdraw from the playoffs this week.
PHOTO: Williamston, here during a 45-7 win over Ionia in Week 7, is back in the Semifinals this weekend for the second time in three seasons. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)