Two of the longest MHSAA Finals days at Ford Field – capped by two of the most exciting championship games in recent memory – concluded the 2021 football season this weekend.
Fans were able to savor every moment until nearly midnight both nights, and more than 38,000 made the trip to Detroit over the two-day 11-player event. That was in addition to those who journeyed from near and far the weekend before for the 8-Player Finals at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, where a pair of repeat champions reigned again.
Second Half covered all 10 championship games, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA Finals record book and a report on some of the biggest and best stories to emerge from the championship weekends.
Finals in Review
11-Player Division 1: Belleville 55, Rochester Adams 33
After falling a win short of reaching the Final the last three seasons, Belleville advanced this fall and completed its first championship run. Freshman quarterback Bryce Underwood showed on a statewide stage why he’s received lots of attention during his high school debut, and he was surrounded by seniors including receiver Jeremiah Caldwell who helped carry the Tigers to the win.
11-Player Division 2: Warren De La Salle Collegiate 41, Traverse City Central 14
After falling in last season’s championship game, De La Salle took the next step in winning its fourth Finals title – and with expectations we could see the Pilots back at Ford Field again in 2022. Junior quarterback Brady Drogosh has been a big part of both trips, and this time he had a hand in 316 total yards and four touchdowns either running or passing.
11-Player Division 3: Detroit Martin Luther King 25, DeWitt 21
Two of the state’s premier quarterbacks were on display, junior Dante Moore for King and senior Ty Holtz for reigning champ DeWitt. But the deciding play was a defensive stand – specifically, the Crusaders stopping a 4th-and-goal from their 1-yard line with 2:34 to play. Both teams brought interceptions back for touchdowns, Holtz making the grab and score for DeWitt.
11-Player Division 4: Chelsea 55, Hudsonville Unity Christian 52
This is the game from this weekend many will be referring to years from now. Take your pick why – the 11-Player Finals record 107 combined points, Chelsea’s also-record 28-point comeback over the final 23 minutes, the fact Unity Christian had set the season record for points scored during the game. Maybe the walk-off field goal by Hunter Shaw saved in part by the deft handling of a short snap by quarterback/holder Lucas Dunn.
11-Player Division 5: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 31, Marine City 7
The Cougars won their second-straight championship in Division 5 and fifth over the last six seasons to go with Division 4 titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019. They did so with what has to be one of the finest back-up quarterbacking performances ever – senior John Passinault stepped in for injured past Finals star Joey Silveri and threw for 2,307 yards and 37 touchdowns this fall.
11-Player Division 6: Lansing Catholic 16, Warren Michigan Collegiate 6
The Cougars have been known for their offensive production over the last decade or more, but the defense led the way to their second championship in three seasons – they had won Division 5 in 2019. Lansing Catholic gave up only 40 points – or eight per game – during this playoff run, and in this game took advantage of four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
11-Player Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia 14, Lawton 10
The Pirates added their fourth championship in six seasons, capping a run which saw them win their league and defeat eight more league champions along the way – one of them Lansing Catholic, the eventual Division 6 title winner. P-W had accomplished most of it with key players out with injuries, but multiple returned to lead the Pirates past Lawton, which was making its first Finals appearance.
11-Player Division 8: Hudson 14, Beal City 7
Defense has reigned in Division 8 the last few seasons, with Hudson following recent champions Centreville and Reading in thriving on that side of the ball. The Tigers ended their undefeated season having given up only 99 points (7.1 per game), and this time stopped a Beal City team averaging 35.5 points per contest entering Ford Field.
8-Player Division 1: Adrian Lenawee Christian 31, Suttons Bay 20
A rematch of last season’s Division 1 Final was more closely contested, but with the same result as Lenawee Christian finished its second-straight undefeated campaign. Cougars quarterback Ashur Bryja is a name to remember – he opened the scoring 51 seconds in with an interception return touchdown, ran for two more scores and threw for 229 yards.
8-Player Division 2: Powers North Central 63, Colon 0
The Jets won their second-straight Division 2 title and fourth 8-player championship total, and put up a combined 133 points over those last two Finals wins. North Central had 520 yards of total offense this time. Wyatt Raab, Luke Gorzinski and Alex Naser all scored two touchdowns, and Gorzinski also was the team’s leading tackler.
Chelsea and Hudsonville blew past the previous record of 94 combined points in an 11-Player Finals game with their combined 107. Chelsea’s 55 tied for third-most, with Unity Christian now sitting at sixth on that list after Belleville also scored 55 in Division 1.
As expected from a 55-52 game, Chelsea ended up with the fourth-most total yardage in 11-Player Finals history, with 533, and the teams’ combined total of 1,024 ranks second. Chelsea’s 28 first downs are tied for third-most.
Chelsea’s Lucas Hanifan tied 11-player championship game records with 30 points and five touchdowns, and set the receiving touchdowns record by two with that total. His quarterback Lucas Dunn set the 11-Player Finals record with six touchdown passes while also making the yardage list with 308, pass attempts list with 36 and completions list with 25. Hanifan’s nine receptions also rank among the most in that category.
Belleville freshman quarterback Bryce Underwood may have even exceeded high expectations with his Finals debut, making the total offense list with a combined 346 rushing and passing yards (with 284 passing) and tying for second with four others with five touchdown passes. Senior receiver Jeremiah Caldwell played a big part, tying for second with 204 receiving yards (on only four receptions) and also tying for second with three touchdown catches.
Warren De La Salle Collegiate became the 22nd team to keep an opponent from completing a pass, shutting out Traverse City Central on its nine attempts. Detroit Martin Luther King became the 29th team to not punt in an 11-Player Final.
De La Salle quarterback Brady Drogosh also made the total yardage list with 316 (including 174 rushing). King’s Dante Moore made the completions list with 18 on 24 attempts.
Chelsea’s Hunter Shaw and Belleville’s Brayden Lane tied the 11-Player Finals record held by three others with seven extra points, while in Division 2, De La Salle’s Brady Lowe made the extra point list with five. Shaw and Adams’ Colin Timko became the 11th and 12th, respectively, to make two or more field goals, Timko hitting from 27 and 35 yards in the Division 1 game and Shaw from 26 and 33.
Hudson’s march to victory included 282 rushing yards on 64 carries, which tied for the eighth-most runs by one team in an 11-Player Final.
Powers North Central’s big win was accompanied by multiple scoring record book entries, including for 29 points in a quarter (third most), 49 in the first half (first) and 63 for one game (also ranking third). The Jets also made the team rushing yardage list with 328 and the team first downs list with 20. North Central also became the first in the category for fewest rushing yards allowed, holding Colon to -14.
Adrian Lenawee Christian set the team first downs record with 24 against Suttons Bay.
Lenawee Christian quarterback Ashur Bryja earned the sixth-most total yards in 8-Player Finals history, with 372 including 229 passing.
North Central’s Jaden Walters set the standard for 8-player championship game kickers, making all seven of his extra point attempts.
Suttons Bay’s August Schaub set a record that will be tough to match, returning an interception 99 yards for a touchdown against Lenawee Christian.
Teammate Hugh Periard was added with the second-longest rushing play in 8-Player Finals history, 90 yards against Lenawee Christian.
Stories Behind the Scores
Winning streaks grow: A few of this season’s winners not only repeated as champions, but extended overall winning streaks that will be followed closely next season. Grand Rapids Catholic Central has won 36 straight games, tied for the sixth-longest undefeated run. Lenawee Christian has won all 24 8-player games it’s played over the last two seasons, and North Central also is 24-0 over the last two.
What’s new is new: Belleville and Chelsea were first-time champions after some just-misses over the last decade. As noted above, the Tigers made the Semifinals this season for the fourth straight year before reaching Ford Field for the first time, and Chelsea has made the Semifinals five of the last seven seasons and had lost in Finals in 2015 and 2018.
QB Power: Michigan is graduating another fine class of high school quarterbacks – DeWitt’s Ty Holtz, in particular, provided two seasons of memories leading the Panthers on back-to-back trips to Ford Field. But we should expect to see some of the other 2021 championship signal-callers a lot next season. King’s Dante Moore will close one of the most highly-followed careers in some time, and De La Salle’s Brady Drogosh will be watched just as much next fall. Belleville’s Bryce Underwood will generate plenty of statewide interest over the next three seasons. As noted, Lenawee Christian’s Ashur Bryja is one of the next stars among the small schools, and North Central’s Luke Gorzinski has led two championship runs and still is just a junior. Two more to remember: Marine City junior Jeffery Heaslip was a standout run/pass threat in leading his team to the Division 5 Final, and Rochester Adams junior Parker Picot became known at least in-state as much for football leading his team in Division 1 as he’s known as a top-level baseball prospect.
No taking ‘normal’ for granted: Those who experienced the start-stop-start 2020 season will never forget it, nor should any of us who had the opportunity to enjoy a more “normal” 2021. With COVID-19 ever present, Michigan high schools did their parts again to play safely this fall. And proper perspective remains a great teacher of just how much that’s worth.
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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.)