1st & Goal: 2021 11-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 24, 2021

We have a lot to be thankful for this fall, including the opportunities that have been provided for our high school athletes in every sport with 2020 still a not-so-distant memory.

MI Student AidOn the football field, we surely are grateful for the opportunity to play a "normal" season. And we're most certainly thankful to again be celebrating another championship conclusion with our traditional 11-Player Finals weekend at Ford Field.

Here's the schedule for Friday and Saturday's games:

Division 8 – 10 a.m. – Beal City (12-1) vs. Hudson (13-0)
Division 2 – 1 p.m. – Traverse City Central (12-1) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (12-0)
Division 6 – 4:30 p.m. – Warren Michigan Collegiate (11-2) vs. Lansing Catholic (12-1)
Division 4 – 7:30 p.m. – Hudsonville Unity Christian (13-0) vs. Chelsea (13-0)

Division 7 – 10 a.m. – Lawton (13-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (13-0)
Division 1 – 1 p.m. – Belleville (12-1) vs. Rochester Adams (13-0)
Division 5 – 4:30 p.m. – Marine City (13-0) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (13-0)
Division 3 – 7:30 p.m. – DeWitt (12-1) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (12-1)

All games will be broadcast live on either the Bally Sports Detroit primary or PLUS channels – click for the schedule and check local listings to find the channels for your cable service. All eight also will be available on the Bally Sports app and streamed on the Bally Sports Detroit website. Additionally, all eight championship games will be available for listening from the MHSAA Network at MHSAANetwork.com

Rankings below are derived from where teams finished the regular season in their divisions based on playoff point average. Statistics are through Regional Finals unless noted. 

Division 1

Record/rank: 13-0, No. 5 
Coach: Tony Patritto, 19th season (149-58)
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association White
Championship history: Division 2 champion 2003. 
Best wins: 40-20 over No. 4 Grand Blanc in Semifinal, 14-13 (Regional Final) and 35-17 over No. 7 West Bloomfield, 42-20 over Lapeer in District Semifinal.  
Players to watch: QB/S Parker Picot, 6-2/185, jr. (1,316 yards/19 TDs rushing, 502 yards/7 TDs passing – includes Semifinal); RB/LB Griffin Henke, 5-10/185, sr. (863 yards, 15 TDs rushing); SL/LB Marco Discresce, 5-11/175, sr.; OL/DE Alex DeGrieck, 6-5/240, sr. 
Outlook: Adams quickly made last season’s 3-5 finish a distant memory with a 35-17 win over reigning Division 1 champion West Bloomfield on opening night. The Highlanders have gone on to set a program record for wins while also defeating the Lakers a second time in the Regional Final and last week handing Grand Blanc its lone loss of the season. DeGrieck is a menace up front on defense, and that group allows only 12.1 points per game and hasn’t given up more than 21. Picot earned an all-state honorable mention last season and directs an attack that averaged 32 points per game during the regular season but has gone over 40 in three of four playoff wins. 

Record/rank: 12-1, No. 6 
Coach: Jermain Crowell, seventh season (71-10)
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association West
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 40-26 over No. T-10. Sterling Heights Stevenson in Semifinal, 12-7 (Regional Final) and 21-19 over No. 12 Dearborn Fordson, 14-10 over No. T-10. Ann Arbor Huron in District Semifinal, 46-9 over Hartland, 53-29 over Livonia Franklin.
Players to watch: DB/WR Jeremiah Caldwell, 6-3/175, sr.; QB Bryce Underwood, 6-2/180, fr.; RB/LB Aaron Alexander, 6-1/205, sr.; DB/WR Deshaun Lee, 5-11/175, sr. (Statistics not provided.)
Outlook: Belleville has broken through to reach championship weekend for the first time after playing in four straight Semifinals – and losing its previous two by a combined four points. The offense gets a lot of attention – and for good reason – but Belleville’s defense has given up only 11.5 points per game and is led in part by Alexander, who has committed to sign with Michigan. That offense does average nearly 42 points per game, with Underwood becoming an immediate star. Caldwell is a top target, and Underwood has found Lee for three touchdowns over the last two weeks. Junior Jeremiah Wilson (6-3/265) starts up front on both sides of the ball. Caldwell, Lee and senior offensive lineman Ja'Kobie Watkins (6-2/190) earned all-state honorable mentions last season.

Division 2

12-0, No. 1
Coach: Dan Rohn, second season (20-5)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2018), three runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 45-14 over Roseville in Regional Final, 47-26 over Division 3 No. 9 Harper Woods, 17-7 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit Catholic Central, 21-16 over Division 3 No. 8 Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, 38-29 over Division 3 No. 14 River Rouge.  
Players to watch: QB Brady Drogosh, 6-4/205, jr. (1,285 yards/10 TDs passing, 1,440 yards/21 TDs rushing); WR Jack Yanachik, 6-2/180, jr. (426 yards/4 TDs receiving); RB Rhett Roeser, 5-11/210, soph. (774 yards/8 TDs rushing); LB Will Beesley, 6-1/215, sr. 
Outlook: The Pilots are returning to the Finals for the second-straight season and fourth in five years, having most recently won back-to-back Division 2 titles in 2017 and 2018. Drogosh also directed the offense during last season’s run, and he has continued his rise as a playmaker – he threw for two more touchdowns and ran for two during the Semifinal win. Roeser also ran for a pair of scores in the Semifinal, and as a team the Pilots are averaging 43 points per game during the playoffs – up nearly a touchdown from the regular season. De La Salle’s defensive points-allowed average also has fallen five points during the playoffs to 12 points per game over the last month. Rohn led Grand Rapids West Catholic to Division 5 championships in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

12-1, No. 4
Coach: Eric Schugars, seventh season (62-15)
League finish: First in Big North Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 1988), one runner-up finish.
Best wins: 56-20 over No. 2 South Lyon in Semifinal, 42-14 over No. 3 Caledonia in Regional Final, 56-13 over Division 3 No. 8 Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, 42-14 over Traverse City West, 24-0 over Division 4 No. 11 Cadillac. 
Players to watch: QB/LB Josh Burnham, 6-4/230, sr. (1,487 yards/28 TDs rushing, 956 yards/14 TDs passing – includes Semifinal); HB/LB Reed Seabase, 5-11/190, jr. (1,175 yards/12 TDs rushing); SB/DB Carson Bourdo, 6-0/180, sr. (381 yards/5 TDs rushing, 468 yards/8 TDs receiving); OL/DE Kadyn Warner, 6-4/245, sr. 
Outlook: The last time Central played in an MHSAA Final, it was known as Traverse City High with the creation of Traverse City West (and resulting split in enrollment) still nearly a decade away. But the Trojans have bulled their way back into the final weekend, led by a battering ram in Burnham – who is committed to sign with Notre Dame. While he does most of the damage on offense, Seabase and Bourdo are among a host of others who have complemented him well as the team has put up nearly 49 points per game. Central allows only 13.5, even more impressive considering the playoff run that’s included wins over the Nos. 2 and 3-ranked teams hasn’t seen the Trojans allow more than 20 points in a game. The only defeat came opening weekend to Division 3 finalist DeWitt.

Division 3

12-1, No. 1
Coach: Tyrone Spencer, sixth season (65-14)
League finish: First in Detroit Public School League Division 1
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2018), three runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 46-7 over No. 15 Mason in Semifinal, 28-7 over No. 6 Allen Park in Regional Final, 33-12 over No. 14 River Rouge in District Final, 39-29 over Cincinnati Moeller, 21-15 and 41-34 over Detroit Cass Tech, 40-19 over Division 2 No. 16 Muskegon Mona Shores.
Players to watch: QB Dante Moore, 6-2/195, jr. (2,820 yards/40 TDs passing – includes Semifinal); WR Lynn Wyche-El Jr, 5-9/160, sr. (823 yards/11 TDs receiving); DB Jameel Croft Jr., 6-1/170, jr.; LB Blake Bailiff, 5-11/210, sr. 
Outlook: After falling by three to eventual Division 3 runner-up River Rouge in a Regional Final last season, King is back at Ford Field for its third championship game in four years. The team’s lone loss was by two points Week 1 to Indiana power Carmel, which finished 9-2. Moore is a returning all-stater and has continued to pick apart defenses with rarely-seen precision, with Wyche-El the leading receiver after earning an all-state honorable mention as a junior and seniors Chansey Willis Jr. (444 yards/6 TDs) and Joseph Williams (369/7) among other top targets. The Crusaders’ defense doesn’t get the same attention, but deserves its share of praise – King is giving up 16.7 points per game for the season, but only 9.5 per game during the playoffs. Bailiff and Croft both earned all-state honorable mentions last season. 

12-1, No. 2
Coach: Rob Zimmerman, 23rd season (234-46)
League finish: First in Capital Area Activities Conference Blue
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2020, five runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 42-12 over No. 10 Cedar Springs in Regional Final, 50-26 over No. 4 Mount Pleasant in District Final, 50-14 over No. 11 Stevensville Lakeshore, 49-14 over Division 2 No. 10 East Lansing, 47-27 over Division 2 No. 4 Traverse City Central.
Players to watch: QB/DB Tyler Holtz, 5-10/190, sr. (2,732 yards/39 TDs passing, 839 yards/11 TDs rushing); WR/DB Nicholas Flegler, 6-0/190, sr. (708 yards/14 TDs rushing, 433 yards/4 TDs receiving); RB/DE/LB Bryce Debri, 5-11/190, sr. (981 yards/12 TDs); WR/DB Thomas McIntosh, 6-5/205, sr. (1,238 yards/21 TDs receiving). (All statistics include Semifinal.)
Outlook: The Panthers won their first championship to close last season’s Finals, and have not slowed down with this fall’s only loss to Division 5 semifinalist Portland in Week 2. DeWitt has scored at least 42 points in every other game and averages 47 points per, with Holtz throwing for 5,128 yards and 74 touchdowns over the last two seasons. In addition to those listed above, junior Bryce Kurncz is another prominent target – he’s caught 10 touchdown passes. Holtz, Flegler, Debri, McIntosh and Kurncz – and senior lineman Jaden Hall – also start for a defense giving up 15.4 points per game. Holtz will play next at Brown, McIntosh at Wisconsin and Flegler at Air Force. McIntosh and Holtz both made the all-state first team last season, and Holtz was named Division 3-4 Player of the Year.

Division 4

Division 4CHELSEA
Record/rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Josh Lucas, fourth season (46-6)
League finish: First in Southeastern Conference White
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2018, Division 3 runner-up 2015. 
Best wins: 30-27 over No. 9 Freeland in Semifinal, 27-20 over Detroit Country Day in Regional Final, 49-12 over Milan in District Final, 24-14 over St. Joseph. 
Players to watch: RB/FS Trenton Hill, 5-10/185, sr. (1,490 yards/30 TDs rushing); QB Lucas Dunn, 6-0/170, sr. (1,641 yards/20 TDs passing); WR Lucas Hanifan, 6-0/164, sr. (718 yards/7 TDs receiving); SS Carson Gray, 6-0/160, sr. (All statistics include Semifinal.)
Outlook: After reaching Semifinals the last two seasons as well, Chelsea will return to Ford Field coming off two straight wins decided in dramatic fashion – the Bulldogs defeated Country Day on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown during the final minute, then stopped Freeland less than two yards short of the end zone late in the Semifinal victory. Those last two games were the only single-digit wins of the season – the Bulldogs are winning by an average score of 41-14. Hill made the all-state second team and Gray earned honorable mention a year ago, and they part of a group of 35 seniors total. Lucas previously served as head coach at Allegan for three seasons before taking over at Chelsea in 2018 and guiding that team to Ford Field as well. 

13-0, No. 2 
Coach: Craig Tibbe, 19th season (114-84)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue
Championship history: Division 5 champion 2018. 
Best wins: 58-8 over No. 3 Edwardsburg in Semifinal, 53-22 over No. 11 Cadillac in Regional Final, 79-21 (District Final) and 58-21 over No. 7 Grand Rapids Christian, 40-14 over Division 5 No. 3 Grand Rapids West Catholic. 
Players to watch: QB/DB Cameron Chandler, 6-3/185, sr. (879 yards/25 TDs rushing, 13 TDs passing – includes Semifinal); RB/DE Abraham Rappuhn, 6-3/195, sr. (1,116 yards/12 TDs rushing – includes Semifinal); RB/LB Micah Bush, 5-9/195, sr. (708 yards/10 TDs rushing); RB/DB Drew Chandler, 6-3/185, sr. (1,333 yards/20 TDs rushing, 9 TDs receiving – includes Semifinal).
Outlook: Unity Christian has scored 751 points, and needs only 24 more – or just more than 40 percent of its average scoring output – to break the record of 774 set by Muskegon Orchard View in 1999. The Crusaders have put up more than 40 every game and more than 50 in 11 wins, piling up more than 4,900 yards on the ground with Cameron Chandler then adding well-timed passes as more than half his completions heading into the Semifinal had gone for scores. An offense like that gives the defense a lot of room to breathe, but it’s not necessarily been needed – the Crusaders give up only 12.7 points per game.

Division 5

Record/rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Todd Kolster, 10th season (113-12)
League finish: First in O-K Gold
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2020), two runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 35-0 over No. 4 Frankenmuth in Semifinal, 25-6 over No. 12 Muskegon Oakridge in Regional Final, 44-6 over No. 3 Grand Rapids West Catholic in District Final, 41-40 over Division 3 No. 10 Cedar Springs, 43-21 over Lapeer. 
Players to watch: QB/DB John Passinault, 6-0/180, sr. (2,086 yards/35 TDs passing, 9 TDs rushing); WR/DB Nolan Ziegler, 6-4/210, sr. (1,212 yards/23 TDs receiving, 86 tackles/7 sacks); WR/LB Ronin Russell-Dixon, 5-7/180, sr. (767 yards/7 TDs receiving); TE/DE Brady Redmer, 6-0/185, sr. (61 tackles).
The Cougars are playing for a second-straight Division 5 championship, and fifth Finals win in six seasons after previously competing in Division 4. Last season’s quarterback star Joey Silveri was injured early this fall, but Passinault stepped in and has been outstanding as well, with Notre Dame-bound Ziegler again a major target. Ziegler made the all-state first team last season, and Redmer earned an honorable mention. After the Cedar Springs win in Week 8, GRCC hasn’t given up more than seven points in a game – and the Cougars have allowed only 12 over four playoff games, taking their season average down to 9.3 allowed per game. 

13-0, No. 2
Coach: Daryn Letson, second season (21-2) 
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Silver
Championship history: Division 4 champions 2013 and 2007, runner-up 2011. 
Best wins: 27-7 over No. 6 Portland in Semifinal, 43-12 over Division 4 No. 10 St. Clair, 21-10 over Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, 41-12 over Warren Fitzgerald. 
Players to watch: QB Jeffery Heaslip, 5-11/190, jr. (1,435 yards/16 TDs passing, 519 yards/10 TDs rushing); RB/DB Zachary Tetler, 5-9/165, jr. (1,359 yards, 27 TDs rushing); FB/QB/SS Charles Tigert, 5-8/185, sr. (994 yards/9 TDs rushing, 58 tackles/12 sacks on defense); LB Wyatt Walker, 5-10/170, sr. (94 tackles)  
Outlook: Marine City’s first trip to the Finals since winning Division 4 in 2013 has showcased a defense giving up only 9.1 points per game. In addition to Walker and Tigert, senior linebacker Jacob Hincherick (90 tackles) and senior safety Ty Nelson (58 tackles/7 interceptions) are among standouts. The Mariners have had to navigate only one single-digit win – over Corunna in the Regional Final – and Heaslip leads a steady offense averaging nearly 44 points per game with only three scoring less than 40.

Division 6

Record/rank: 12-1, No. 1
Coach: Jim Baker, first season (12-1)
League finish: First in CAAC White
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2019), two runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 18-7 over No. 8 Standish-Sterling in Semifinal, 31-13 over No. 10 Montague in Regional final, 28-8 over No. 5 Millington in District Final, 31-29 over Division 5 No. 6 Portland
Players to watch: WR/S Alex Watters, 6-0/160, sr. (1,063 yards/14 TDs receiving, 8 TDs rushing); QB Joey Baker, 6-1/165, sr. (2,628 yards/27 TDs passing – includes Semifinal); WR/CB Brandon Lewis, 5-11/170, jr. (814 yards/11 TDs receiving, 411 yards/13 TDs rushing); DL/OL Bo Poljan, 6-3/235, sr. 
Outlook: The Cougars are seeking to win a second championship in three years after claiming the Division 5 title in 2019 and reaching the Semifinals last season. Their only loss was to a team still playing – 12-7 to Division 7 finalist Pewamo-Westphalia in Week 9. Despite the defeat, that game started a run of five during which Lansing Catholic has given up only 9.2 points per game – cutting down their season points allowed average to 14 per. Watters starred on the 2019 team as well, and Poljan and offensive guard Jonah Richards also were key contributors during that run as sophomores. Watters and Poljan both made the all-state first team last season. Jim Baker took over the program this season after 27 years serving as a varsity assistant and later junior varsity head coach.

11-2, No. 4
Coach: John Guth, eighth season (72-18)
League finish: First in Charter School Conference East
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 36-29 over Michigan Center in Semifinal, 38-16 over Ecorse in Regional Final, 46-13 over Port Huron, 22-0 over Romulus Summit Academy North. 
Players to watch: QB/DB Deion Black, 6-4/186, sr. (944 yards/14 TDs passing, 1,222 yards/16 TDs rushing, 9 interceptions); RB/LB Deshaun Parkman, 5-11/210, sr. (727 yads/10 TDs rushing); RB/LB Teshawn Thomas, 5-10/205, jr. (685 yards/8 TDs rushing); WR/DB Tre’von Redding, 5-11/155, sr. (681 yards/10 TDs receiving, 4 TDs rushing, 11 interceptions.) (All statistics include Semifinal.)
Outlook: Michigan Collegiate has earned its first trip to the Finals, building on a 13th-straight playoff berth and third Semifinal appearance. Black earned an all-state honorable mention at quarterback last season and is a frequent playmaker on both sides of the ball. Redding is another player who can make something good happen any time he touches the ball; in addition to his receiving and rushing touchdowns, he’s returned two of his 11 interceptions for touchdowns and also scored on kickoff and punt returns. The defense total has 29 interceptions while giving up just 14.7 points per game. The Cougars’ only losses were to Division 4 Milan and Detroit Country Day.

Division 7

13-0, No. 5
Coach: Jeremy Miller, ninth season (104-9)
League finish: First in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2019), two runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 28-21 over No. 3 Traverse City St. Francis in Semifinal, 53-21 over No. T-10. New Lothrop in District Final, 42-7 over No. T-15. Ithaca in District Semifinal, 12-7 over Division 6 No. 1 Lansing Catholic, 26-14 over Division 5 No. 15 Olivet, 33-6 over Division 4 No. 6 Redford Union. 
Players to watch: QB/LB Troy Wertman, 6-2/210, jr. (945 yards/15 TDs rushing, 580 yards/9 TDs passing); RB/DB Dak Ewalt, 5-9/180, sr. (833 yards/9 TDs rushing); FB/LB Gavin Nurenberg, 5-9/200, soph.; OL/DL Corey Schafer, 6-5/215, sr.
Outlook: The Pirates will be playing in their fifth Final in seven seasons, but arguably have never encountered and overcome so many obstacles to get here. In addition to a playoff road that included wins over both last season’s champion and runner-up, P-W has succeeded having lost its starting quarterback, leading receiver and all-state running back. But players like Wertman have kept things rolling – he threw for three touchdowns and ran for the fourth in the win over St. Francis last week – and Schafer made the all-state second team last season and continues to anchor both lines. All seven nonleague wins, including four in the playoffs, have come over teams that went on to or had won their conference championships. 

13-0, No. 8
Coach: Wade Waldrup, third season (30-3)
League finish: First in Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 21-20 over No. 1 Jackson Lumen Christi in Semifinal, 41-22 over No. 6 Muskegon Catholic Central in Regional Final, 69-40 over No. T-10. Montrose. 
Players to watch: RB/S Jake Rueff, 6-0/176, sr. (2,317 yards/46 TDs rushing); RB/S Carter Cosby, 5-9/165, jr. (847 yards/11 TDs rushing); QB/S Landon Motter, 6-0/154, sr. (622 yards/10 TDs passing, 8 TDs rushing); OL/DL Evan Stephayn, 6-2/250, sr. (All statistics through Semifinal.)
Outlook: Lawton will be playing in its first championship game, coming off arguably the biggest win in program history, and riding the legs of a senior standout putting up numbers hardly seen in 100+ years of Michigan high school football. Rueff’s 49 total touchdowns (including three receiving) currently rank fourth for one season; his 46 rushing touchdowns are third on that list. And when Lumen Christi kept him mostly contained last week, Motter ran for two scores and senior Cooper Geib (690 yards/8 TDs rushing) led the team in run yardage. Senior tight end/defensive end Chase Mitchell is another standout – he starts both ways and was an all-state honorable mention punter last season. Rueff also earned honorable mention, and Stephayn made the second team in 2020. 

Division 8

Division 8HUDSON
13-0, No. 1
Coach: Dan Rogers, second season (18-4)
League finish: First in Lenawee County Athletic Association
Championship history: Division 7 champion 2010, three runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 28-22 over No. 2 Ottawa Lake Whiteford in Semifinal, 8-0 over No. 9 White Pigeon in Regional Final, 28-8 over No. 3 Addison in District Final, 22-0 over No. 14 Reading in District Semifinal, 22-14 over Division 6 No. 6 Ida, 59-14 over Division 7 No. T-15. Ithaca. 
Players to watch: RB/LB Nick Kopin, 5-11/175, sr. (1,483 yards/16 TDs rushing – includes Semifinal); RB/S Bronson Marry, 5-10/155, sr. (640 yards/11 TDs rushing – includes Semifinal); RBLB Brendan Akers, 5-10/195, jr. (856 yards/12 TDs rushing); RB/LB Payton Rogers, 5-8/160 sr. 
Outlook: A high-powered rushing game and a nearly-unbreakable defense have Hudson back at the Finals for the first time since that 2010. The Tigers are approaching 4,000 yards rushing for the season, and the defense has given up a mere 7.1 points and 136 yards per game this fall. Hudson has seven shutouts, and only Whiteford last week and Division 6 Clinton scored more than 14 points. Dan Rogers played at Hudson and served as an assistant since 1997 – including 19 seasons as defensive coordinator – before taking over the program a year ago. Senior Ethan Harris (6-foot-3/235 pounds) and junior Aden Barrett (5-9/170) start on both lines. 

12-1, No. 4
Coach: Brad Gross, seventh season (54-23)
League finish: First in Highland Conference
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2009), six runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 12-7 over No. 5 Ubly in Semifinal, 34-14 over No. 6 Carson City-Crystal in Regional Final, 41-6 over No. 7 Iron Mountain in District Final, 14-12 over Sand Creek.  
Players to watch: RB/LB Cade Block, 5-9/165, sr. (1,351 yards/27 TDs – includes Semifinal); QB/DE Hunter Miles, 5-10/175, sr. (695 yards/6 TDs passing); RB/DB Jamisen Latham, 5-9/170, soph. (680 yards/6 TDs rushing – includes Semifinal); TE/DE Matt Oswald, 6-1/225, sr. (3 TDs receiving, 60 tackles). 
Outlook: Beal City is headed back to Ford Field for the second time in three seasons, a one-point Week 1 loss to Division 7 Ravenna from a perfect record and riding one of the most impressive playoff runs into Detroit. In addition to the wins over three top-seven teams, the Aggies began the playoffs with a 36-0 win over another league champion, Bark River-Harris. The 6.8 points they are allowing per game during the playoffs falls right in line with their season average of 8.5. Oswald earned an all-state honorable mention last season, and he’s joined on both lines by senior Peyton Sellers (5-foot-10/230 pounds), with linebackers Wade Wilson and Josh Wilson two more key two-way starters and top tacklers. 

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Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs 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.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. 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.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. 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.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. 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 ShebestPam 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.)