1st & Goal: 2021 Playoff Week 3 Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 11, 2021

The 8-player football season is down to its final six games, and the 11-player season is down to its final three weeks – and every matchup at this point in the MHSAA Playoffs has a story to tell.

MI Student AidWe preview 12 of those below, switching things up with the 8-Player Semifinals first as we join those contenders in preparing for next weekend’s trip to the Finals at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

All four 8-Player Semifinals and 31 of 36 football games total this weekend will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv, with Bally Sports Detroit broadcasting the 11-player Division 1 matchup between Rochester Adams and West Bloomfield. Click for how to watch.

8-Player Division 1

Martin (11-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (11-0), Friday

Lenawee Christian’s winning streak since switching to 8-player last season has reached 22 games, and they have yet to win one by only single digits – Climax-Scotts came closest this fall in a 16-point Week 6 loss. But all of that could change this week; Martin has put together two perfect regular seasons over its three in 8-player, and Mendon (in losses by eight and 19) is the only team to get within 40 points of the Clippers this season.

Rudyard (9-2) at Suttons Bay (11-0), Saturday

By defeating previously-unbeaten Indian River Inland Lakes 53-18 last week, Suttons Bay ran its record over the last three seasons to a combined 33-2, with both losses in Division 1 championship games. No one has gotten closer than 18 points to the Norseman this fall, and the last nine wins have all been by at least 30 points. Enter Rudyard, which is holding opponents to only 11 points per game and features a two-way threat on offense in senior quarterback EJ Suggitt (853 yards/17 TDs passing, 362 yards/11 TDs rushing). The Bulldogs have avenged both of their regular-season losses during the playoffs.

8-Player Division 2

Marion (10-1) at Powers North Central (11-0), Saturday

To say the Jets have been unchallenged this season is becoming an understatement – they’ve outscored their 10 opponents on the field by an average of 61-4, and they too have won 22 straight games. But Marion is enjoying historic success, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 1992 with the only loss to Suttons Bay (see above) and no other opponent getting closer than 15 points. Junior quarterback Mason Salisbury can do it all; he’s run for 1,567 yards (11 per carry) and 30 touchdowns and thrown for another 908 yards and 12 scores.

Colon (10-1) at Au Gres-Sims (11-0), Saturday

The Wolverines have reached their previous high point, as in 2018 they also entered a Semifinal 11-0 before falling that game to Pickford. This time, Au Gres-Sims features a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in senior Mason VanSickle (1,434/21 TDS) and junior Keagan Bender (1,209/16), and VanSickle also has thrown for 2,465 yards and 40 touchdowns – nearly half to senior Evan Saunders (1,061 yards/17 TDs). They surely will test a Colon defense allowing only 12 points per game. But the Magi have seen many of the rest of the best, with the only loss to Lenawee Christian (see above) and wins the last two weeks over previous unbeatens Portland St. Patrick and Morrice.

11-Player Division 1

Dearborn Fordson (9-2) at Belleville (10-1), Saturday

Fordson’s two losses this season were by a combined five points, and the first came Week 5 against Belleville 21-19 in a game that ended up helping the Tigers finish atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East. The Tractors’ defense has been sound – they are giving up only 17 points per game, and those 21 tied Belleville’s second-lowest output of the season. But Fordson’s challenge of scoring more in this rematch faces a tough obstacle as well with the Tigers giving up only 13 points per game this season including a combined 19 over their last three games.  

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY West Bloomfield (10-1) at Rochester Adams (11-0), Macomb Dakota (8-3) at Sterling Heights Stevenson (9-2). SATURDAY Grand Blanc (11-0) at Rockford (11-0).

11-Player Division 2

Traverse City Central (10-1) at Caledonia (10-1), Friday

Central has followed up last season’s first Semifinal trip since 1998 with a record offensive performance. The Trojans’ 537 points are their most since at least 1950 (according to Michigan-football.com), and they’ve scored 49 or more five straight games and 42 or more in nine games total. Caledonia may not be fazed. The Fighting Scots are giving up 13 points per game, and that includes allowing only 17 to Rockford (averaging 40 per game) and 12 to Muskegon Mona Shores (44 ppg) over the last five weeks. But the comparison also cuts the other way; Central’s defense is giving up just 13 points per game as well, and Caledonia’s offense is grinding out 35.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Portage Central (9-2) at South Lyon (11-0), Livonia Franklin (6-5) at Waterford Mott (7-4). SATURDAY Roseville (7-4) at Warren De La Salle Collegiate (10-0).

11-Player Division 3

Cedar Springs (9-2) at DeWitt (10-1), Saturday (at Grand Ledge)

Cedar Springs’ 21-14 win over Muskegon last week may have resulted in some double takes – the Big Reds had won nine straight District titles – but the result definitely falls in with the Red Hawks’ body of work this season. Grand Rapids Catholic Central puts up a strong argument as one of the best teams in Michigan regardless of division, the Cedar Springs fell to the Cougars by just a point in Week 8. The other loss came to Rockford. The question this time will revolve around how much the Red Hawks’ defense can match DeWitt’s offense, which averages 48 ppg. Muskegon averaged 46 before last week’s meeting, but the Panthers put up 50 on previously-undefeated Mount Pleasant in their District Final.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Parma Western (8-3) at St. Joseph (7-4), Mason (9-2) at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (8-3) (at Lawrence Tech), Allen Park (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (10-1).

11-Player Division 4

Detroit Country Day (7-3) at Chelsea (11-0), Friday

Country Day’s record really is irrelevant at this point; the Yellowjackets’ losses were to Division 2 South Lyon and Division 3 Brother Rice and Harper Woods, and South Lyon and Brother Rice are still playing. More telling might be how Country Day has played over the last five weeks – the reigning Division 4 champion is 4-1 giving up 13 points per game and having scored a combined 84 over its first two playoff contests. It’s a good match for how Chelsea has been looking consistently all season; the Bulldogs are giving up 12 points per game and scoring 43, and that’s with only one game under 40 this fall.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Cadillac (9-2) at Hudsonville Unity Christian (11-0) (at Jenison), Grand Rapids South Christian (8-3) at Edwardsburg (11-0), Croswell-Lexington (10-1) at Freeland (10-1).

11-Player Division 5

Kingsley (10-1) at Frankenmuth (11-0), Saturday

A rematch of last season Division 5 Final with Grand Rapids Catholic Central is a possibility for next week, but the Eagles cannot overlook a Kingsley team that has reached at least Regional Finals three of the last four seasons and is eight points from also being undefeated this fall. The Stags lone loss was 38-30 to Division 7 contender Traverse City St. Francis, and minus that game Kingsley is giving up only 7.8 points per contest. Frankenmuth’s defense should be ready to match – the Eagles are giving up only 9.3 points per game – but must be ready for a close game that could resemble their wins over New Lothrop, Freeland and Goodrich.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Muskegon Oakridge (9-2) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-0), Kalamazoo United (8-3) at Portland (9-2), Corunna (7-4) at Marine City (11-0).

11-Player Division 6

Montague (8-3) at Lansing Catholic (10-1), Saturday

Reigning champion Montague has worked its way back to this point, and a broader look at the Wildcats’ season shows they’ve really been in the mix all along. Montague earned a share of the West Michigan Conference title, which is never a small feat, and the losses came to teams in Division 4 (Edwardsburg, Whitehall) and Division 5 (Portland) that all are still playing after winning District titles. The Cougars impressed in a big way with last week’s 28-8 win over previously-undefeated Millington, and an offense averaging 34 points per game may need to be the difference this time. Both teams are giving up only 14 points per game.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Michigan Center (10-1) at Clinton (9-2). SATURDAY Calumet (9-2) at Standish-Sterling (9-2), Ecorse (8-3) at Warren Michigan Collegiate (9-2).

11-Player Division 7

Lawton (11-0) at Muskegon Catholic Central (10-1), Friday

The Blue Devils put together their second perfect regular season in three years this fall, and a win this weekend would plant a major exclamation mark on that recent work. Lawton is seeking its first Regional title and rolling, especially on the defensive side of the ball where its giving up only 8.5 points per game. This will be MCC’s seventh-straight game against a playoff team, which makes its 34 points scored and 14 points allowed per game even more impressive. The Crusaders are seeking their first Regional title since 2016’s undefeated Division 8 run.  

Other Regional Finals SATURDAY Ishpeming Westwood (10-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (11-0), Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (9-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (11-0), Detroit Loyola (6-4) at Jackson Lumen Christi (10-1).

11-Player Division 8

Clarkston Everest Collegiate (9-2) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-1), Saturday

While not this group of players, Whiteford as a program has familiarity with this level of the tournament having made consecutive Finals in 2016 and 2017 and winning Division 8 to cap the latter run (when the Bobcats also defeated Everest in a Regional Final). But this will be Whiteford’s first playoff game this season against a team from outside its league. Everest has that bit of unfamiliarity on its side, and has been on its game outscoring its first two playoff opponents by a combined 88-0. The Mountaineers reached the Semifinals last season but were unable to play that round – so surely there’s some added motivation to return.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (10-1) at Beal City (10-1), Breckenridge (9-2) at Ubly (11-0), White Pigeon (10-1) at Hudson (11-0).

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PHOTO Marion quarterback Mason Salisbury (7) works to get to the edge during a Week 8 win over Vestaburg. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.) 

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.)