1st & Goal: 2023 11-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 22, 2023

There’s plenty of new to this weekend’s MHSAA 11-Player Football Finals, and it goes far beyond the four teams making their first appearances in a championship game.

MI Student AidThis time, the Finals will be played on Saturday and Sunday – shifted by Michigan State playing Penn State on Friday at Ford Field. And the traditional order of games also has been switched up a bit – both days will conclude with the largest schools playing that day, the Division 2 teams facing off to finish Saturday and the Division 1 Final concluding the weekend Sunday night. Also necessary to note for Sunday – games will begin 30 minutes earlier than the usual schedule, with the opener in Division 7 that morning kicking off at 9:30.

After that, there’s a lot of familiar about this weekend’s lineup. Five champions are playing to repeat, and three 2022 runners-up are hoping to take the next step. The Division 8 Final is a rematch from a year ago, and several individual standouts will be returning to Ford Field as well – including star Belleville quarterback Bryce Underwood, finishing off a third season as one of the main topics of statewide football conversation.

Here's the full schedule for Saturday and Sunday's games:

Saturday, Nov. 25
Division 8 – Ubly (13-0) vs. Ottawa Lake Whiteford (13-0)– 10 a.m.
Division 4 – Grand Rapids South Christian (10-3) vs. Harper Woods (10-3) – 1 p.m.
Division 6 – Kingsley (11-2) vs. Almont (12-1) – 4:30 p.m. 
Division 2 – Muskegon (11-2) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (11-2) – 7:30 p.m. 

Sunday, Nov. 26 
Division 7 – Menominee (11-2) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (12-1) – 9:30 a.m.
Division 3 – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (12-1) vs. Mason (13-0) – 12:30 p.m. 

Division 5 – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (12-1) vs. Corunna (13-0) – 4 p.m. 
Division 1 – Belleville (13-0) vs. Southfield Arts & Technology (12-1) – 7 p.m. 

All games will be broadcast live on Bally Sports Detroit’s primary channel except the Division 3 Final, which will be broadcast on Bally Sports Detroit Extra, and all eight also will be available via the Bally Sports Detroit website and Bally Sports app. Additionally, all eight championship games will be available for listening from the MHSAA Network at MHSAANetwork.comLinks to purchase tickets and more are available on the Football page.

Below is a glance at all eight matchups. Statistics are through Semifinals unless noted.

Division 1Division 1

Record/Rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Calvin Norman, first season (13-0)
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association East
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2022 and 2021.
Best wins: 63-21 over No. 3 Davison in Semifinal, 49-7 (Regional Final) and 42-0 over No. 6 Northville, 65-14 over No. 5 Saline in District Final, 35-28 over River Rouge.
Players to watch: QB Bryce Underwood, 6-3/190 jr. (3,155  yards/40 TDs passing, 7 TDs rushing); RB/LB Jeremiah Beasley, 6-2/220 sr. (787 yards/13 TDs rushing); WR/DB Kevin Simes, 5-9/175 sr. (1,053 yards/12 TDs receiving); OL/DL Ronald Jackson, 6-1/270 sr.

Outlook: Belleville has won the last two Division 1 championships and 38 straight games – tied for the seventh-longest winning streak in MHSAA football history – and has dominated all but its first opponent of the season, Rouge, which reached the Division 3 Regional Finals. The offense gets high praise, and rightfully so – Underwood and Beasley were all-state first-teamers last season and are among the nation’s elite at their positions, with Beasley committed to sign with Michigan. But Beasley also keys a defense that has allowed just 95 points (7.3 per game), that average increasing to only 12 ppg during the playoffs despite a strong group of opponents. Senior running back Colbey Reed (5-foot-9/210 pounds) is another talented offensive contributor – he’s run for 715 yards and nine touchdowns, including 228 and four, respectively, in the Semifinal.

Record/Rank: 12-1, No. 8
Coach: Aaron Marshall, third season (22-11)
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association White
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 40-35 over No. 9 West Bloomfield in Semifinal, 31-21 over No. 10 Clinton Township Chippewa Valley in Regional Final, 36-25 (Regional Semifinal) and 29-27 over Detroit Cass Tech, 20-17 over Clarkston, 42-35 over Division 2 No. 9 Birmingham Groves.
Players to watch:QB Isiah Marshall, 6-0/205 sr. (2,833 yards/37 TDs passing, 1,373 yards/15 TDs rushing); WR Xavi Bowman, 6-0/195 sr. (769 yards/10 TDs receiving); WR Tashi Braceful, 6-2/184 sr. (921 yards/13 TDs receiving); DB Jalen Todd, 6-1/178 sr.

Outlook: This will be the first championship game appearance for any part of this program, including the former Southfield High and Southfield-Lathrup from which A&T was formed in 2016. The Warriors are led by another of the state’s most dynamic quarterbacks, with Marshall throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and also totaling more than half of the team’s rushing yards this season (averaging 11.3 per carry) and set to sign with Kansas. Todd was an all-state first-team selection last season and also will sign with Kansas, while senior defensive back Wendell Smith is set to sign with Eastern Michigan and Braceful with Toledo. Braceful and Bowman are only two of a talented receiving group helping Marshall stretch the field; senior Jawon Jarrett (513 yards/6 TDs) is another. The West Bloomfield win last week avenged a 31-20 loss in Week 8.

Division 2Division 2

Record/Rank: 11-2, No. 1
Coach: Dan Rohn, fourth season (42-8)
League finish: Second in Detroit Catholic High School League Central
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2022), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 40-28 over No. 2 Muskegon, 45-19 over Waterford Mott in Semifinal, 34-14 over Roseville in Regional Final, 14-7 over Detroit Catholic Central.
Players to watch: QB/TE Sante Gasperoni, 6-2/215 jr. (2,141 yards/23 TDs passing, 926 yards/15 TDs rushing); WR/DB Damion King IV, 5-8/155 soph. (723 yards/9 TDs receiving); WR/DB Phoenix Glassnor, 6-1/180 jr. (626 yards/7 TDs receiving); LB/RB Sam Wakula, 6-0/210 sr.

Outlook: Several of the top contributors are new for De La Salle this season, but the results have been the same as the Pilots pursue a third-straight Division 2 championship. Gasperoni has stepped in at quarterback and shined, and King has been another key after leading the team in receiving at last year’s Final as a freshman. Gasperoni also has a ton of help up front from a line including senior guard Ryan Ross (6-2/290) and senior tight end Caden Campbell (6-3/235). The lone losses were in the season opener to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Davison – which was followed by the Muskegon win – and in Week 4 to eventual Catholic League Central champion Toledo Central Catholic. De La Salle has given up only 75 points total over its nine-game winning streak.

Record/Rank: 11-2, No. 2
Coach: Shane Fairfield, 13th season (153-29)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Green
Championship history: Six MHSAA championships (most recent 2017), seven runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 42-7 over East Lansing in Semifinal, 42-14 over No. 8 Saginaw Heritage in Regional Final, 42-28 (District Final) and 42-21 over No. 5 Muskegon Mona Shores, 28-13 over Muskegon Reeths-Puffer, 22-16 over Zeeland West.
Players to watch: QB/DB M’Khi Guy, 5-8/175 sr. (1,721 yards/23 TDs, 535 yards/8 TDs passing); RB/LB Jakob Price, 5-6/180 sr. (1,150 yards/21 TDs rushing); SL/DB Destin Piggee, 5-7/170 sr. (981 yards/10 TDs rushing); DL Chris Jones, 5-9/240 sr.  

Outlook: After finishing Division 3 runner-up a year ago, Muskegon returns in Division 2 to play its ninth Final over the last 12 years. Guy, Price and Piggee all are familiar with Ford Field after combining to gain all of the team’s yards in last season’s trip, and the offense as a whole has been even better this fall averaging nearly 41 points per game and even upping that average by a point during the playoffs. The Big Reds opened with losses to Division 1 Rockford and De La Salle, but have given up only 10.8 points per game since. Junior inside linebackers Darekeo Speech and Adrian Rankin Jr. and senior defensive end Stanley Cunningham have stood out as well defensively, and they were among the team’s leading tacklers during last season’s championship game. Guy and Piggee made the Division 2 all-state second team last season.

Division 3Division 3

Record/Rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Gary Houghton, seventh season (59-17)
League finish: First in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 44-41 OT (Regional Final) and 30-7 over No. 6 Walled Lake Western, 26-20 over Detroit Martin Luther King in Semifinal, 42-7 (District Final) and 42-23 over No. 8 DeWitt, 35-20 over Haslett.
Players to watch: WR/LB Kaleb Parrish, 6-5/220 sr. (601 yards/12 TDs receiving); QB/CB Cason Carswell, 6-3/185 jr. (2,589 yards/32 TDs passing); WR/LB Derek Badgley, 6-1/205 sr. (570 yards/2 TDs receiving); RB/FS AJ Martell, 5-9/185 sr. (1,378 yards/26 TDs rushing). (Statistics do not include Semifinal.)

Outlook: After reaching the Semifinals and falling to King both of the last two seasons, Mason broke through last weekend to earn a historic trip with nearly the identical lineup as a year ago. Carswell is a three-year starter at quarterback and also had run for nearly 300 yards and three scores heading into last weekend, and Martel is a four-year starter and the program’s all-time leading rusher. Parrish made the all-state first team last season at linebacker, and Carswell made the second. Parrish is one of six two-way starters as is senior Tyler Baker, the team's leader in receiving yardage (720, 6 TDs). Nine of Mason’s wins came against opponents with winning records this fall, and both Walled Lake Western victories and the first DeWitt win were on the road. The Bulldogs have another important scoring option in soccer all-state junior Collin Winters, who has made 62 of 66 extra-point tries and four field goals in five attempts.

Record/Rank: 12-1, No. 3
Coach: Tim Rogers, 12th season (88-41)
League finish: Tied for first in O-K White
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2022, Class A runner-up 1994.
Best wins: 18-14 over Zeeland West in Semifinal, 33-7 over No. 2 Gaylord in Regional Final, 45-21 over No. 4 Mount Pleasant in District Final, 20-0 over No. 5 East Grand Rapids, 26-6 over Division 2 No. 7 Portage Central.
Players to watch: QB/DB Mason McDonald, 6-0/180 sr. (1,455 yards/18 TDs passing, 743 yards/11 TDs rushing); DB/WR Ty Hudkins, 6-0/185 sr. (690 yards/7 TDs receiving); LB/RB JT Hartman, 5-9/190 sr. (1,307 yards/17 TDs rushing); LB/TE Max Richardson, 6-3/215 jr.
Outlook: Forest Hills Central also brings back several main contributors from last season’s Division 2 runner-up run, with Hartman and Hudkins again the team’s leading rusher and receiver, respectively, and McDonald directing the offense after stepping in for the injured starter during the playoffs to get the Rangers to Ford Field a year ago. FHC is a 15-14 Week 5 loss to Division 2 No. 4 Byron Center from a perfect record, and the defense especially has been masterful giving up only nine points per game and more than 15 only twice. Hudkins has committed to sign with Purdue and Richardson has committed to Stanford, and they are among six who start on both offense and defense.

Division 4Division 4

Record/Rank: 10-3, unranked
Coach: Rod Oden, seventh season (35-28)
League finish: Third in OAA White
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 35-24 over No. 4 Goodrich in Semifinal, 46-19 over No. 8 Carleton Airport in Regional Final, 24-7 over Roseville, 34-7 over Clarkston.
Players to watch: RB Colby Bailey, 5-9/175 jr. (1,100 yards rushing); WR/DB Dakota Guerrant, 6-0/190 fr. (1,086 yards receiving); QB Nate Rocheleau, 5-10/170 soph. (1,836 yards/23 TDs passing); WR/DB Jacob Oden, 6-1/197 sr. (Statistics do not include Semifinal.)

Outlook: Harper Woods was just 3-6 a year ago and started this season 3-3 but has found its stride despite playing one of the toughest schedules certainly of any Division 4 team if not statewide with the losses to Division 1 Southfield A&T and Lake Orion and Division 2 Groves. Rocheleau and senior Stephone Buford Jr. provide multiple looks splitting time at quarterback, Buford with 10 touchdown passes, seven touchdown catches and 11 touchdown runs this season (including the Semifinal). Jacob Oden has committed to sign with Michigan, and senior linebacker Willie Powell is another top contributor on defense and has committed to play at Air Force. Rod Oden formerly coached successful programs at Detroit Crockett and East English Village.

Record/Rank: 10-3, No. 9
Coach: Danny Brown, fifth season (46-14)
League finish: Tied for second in O-K Gold
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2022), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 21-6 over No. 3 Portland in Semifinal, 55-35 over Big Rapids in Regional Final, 22-14 (District Final) and 32-29 over Ada Forest Hills Eastern, 34-7 over Wayland in District Semifinal.
Players to watch: WR/DB Jake Vermaas, 6-2/185 sr. (1,548 yards/20 TDs receiving); RB/LB Charlie Schreur, 5-8/170 sr. (594 yards/11 TDs rushing); QB Carson Vis, 6-4/185 jr. (2,531 yards/32 TDs passing, 867 yards/15 TDs rushing); OL/DL Cam VanSolkema, 6-4/270 sr.

Outlook: The reigning Division 4 champion Sailors seemed on the verge of something big again through the regular season, losing to Division 3 No. 5 East Grand Rapids only 23-21 in Week 2, Division 5 top-ranked Grand Rapids Catholic Central just 21-12 in Week 8 and then Wayland 49-40 in Week 9. They took that next step to start the playoffs, avenging with a big win over Wayland to start this march back to Ford Field. Vermaas was among stars of last season’s 28-0 Finals win over Goodrich and VanSolkema is a returning second-team all-stater. Vermaas also was a standout for the South Christian basketball team that finished Division 2 runner-up in March, and Vis was the leading scorer on that team and has made an impressive comeback after injuries ended his hoops season in the Regional Final.

Division 5Division 5

Record/Rank: 13-0, No. 4
Coach: Steve Herrick, eighth season (56-28)
League finish:  First in Flint Metro League Stars
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 28-17 over No. 3 Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in District Final, 45-7 over No. 8 Flint Hamady in District Semifinal, 35-7 over Division 4 No. 4 Goodrich.
Players to watch: QB/DB Wyatt Bower, 6-1/180 sr. (2,261 yards/26 TDs passing, 994 yards/15 TDs rushing); RB/LB Jaden Edington, 5-11/210 sr. (1,034 yards/22 TDs rushing, 104 tackles/16 tackles for loss); WR/DB Tarick Bower, 6-1/170 sr. (1,314 yards/19 TDs receiving); OL/DL AJ Brieger, 6-3/240 jr.

Outlook: Corunna steadily has been building to this point, increasing its win total each of the last five seasons including going 8-3 a year ago. Its first two wins of this playoffs came over undefeated Hamady and Notre Dame Prep, and the 11-point victory over NDP was the Cavaliers’ closest game as they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 45-7. Senior running back Parker Isham (572 yards/8 TDs rushing) and junior receiver Bryce Edington (604 yards/4 TDs receiving) are two more options as Wyatt Bower directs the offense. The defense has created plenty of miscues with 13 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.

Record/Rank: 12-1, No. 1
Coach: Todd Kolster, 12th season (137-16)
League finish: First in O-K Gold
Championship history: Seven MHSAA titles (most recent 2019), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 35-0 over No. 5 Frankenmuth in Semifinal, 30-28 over No. 2 Grand Rapids West Catholic in Regional Final, 21-12 over Division 4 No. 9 Grand Rapids South Christian, 38-6 over River Rouge.
Players to watch: WR Jamison Williams, 6-5/180 jr. (703 yards/7 TDs receiving); QB/FS Connor Wolf, 6-3/190 sr. (2,568 yards/26 TDs passing, 475 yards/7 TDs rushing); WR/DB Mill Coleman III, 5-11/175 sr. (503 yards/6 TDs receiving); TB/DB Kellen Russell-Dixon, 5-10/190 sr. (1,607 yards/24 TDs rushing, 4 TDs receiving).

Outlook: After a season away, Grand Rapids Catholic Central will play in its sixth Final over the last eight years, it’s only loss this fall in the opener to Chicago Loyola. Williams made the all-state second team last season and is among several contributors to a balanced attack that has scored 42 or more points in eight games. After falling 45-7 to Loyola, only West Catholic two weeks ago has scored more than 14 points on the Cougars this season, and GRCC has been especially limiting to passing offenses allowing fewer than 100 yards per game and only three touchdowns total through the air.

Division 6Division 6

Record/Rank: 12-1, No. 3
Coach: James Leusby, ninth season (72-25)
League finish: First in Blue Water Area Conference
Championship history: Division 5 runner-up 2019.
Best wins: 49-24 over Detroit Edison in Regional Final, 40-38 (OT) over No. 1 Warren Michigan Collegiate in District Final, 30-20 over Croswell-Lexington, 39-0 over Marysville.
Players to watch: RB/DB Ayden Ferqueron, 6-1/195 sr. (106 tackles); RB/LB Chase Battani, 5-10/175 jr. (1,169 yards/18 TDs rushing, 85 tackles/11 tackles for loss); LB Cohen Ferqueron, 6-0/175 soph. (92 tackles); QB Chase Davedowski, 6-0/165 sr. (431 yards/8 TDs passing). (Only Battani’s offensive stats include Semifinal.)

Outlook: One of the state’s most consistently successful programs – Almont has made the playoffs 17 of the last 18 seasons – is back at Ford Field for the second time in five years. The team’s only loss was 21-7 to Division 5 Ogemaw Heights in Week 9, and the Raiders bounced right back and actually are averaging five points a game (42) more in the playoffs than for the season as a whole. Almont’s defense is giving up 14 points per game, but more than half of the 192 allowed this season were scored during the fourth quarter after the team has built a nice lead – and the Raiders have allowed only 67 points during first halves. Nearly all of the offense comes on the ground, but from a variety of sources after Battani including junior Luke Winkler (5-9/155), who has run for eight touchdowns, caught two scoring passes and returned three kicks and two punts for TDs as well.

Record/Rank: 11-2, No. 4
Coach: Tim Wooer, 15th season (126-39)
League finish: Second in Northern Michigan Football Conference Legends
Championship history: Division 6 champion 2005.
Best wins: 37-7 (Semifinal) and 46-12 over Reed City, 51-27 over No. 7 Gladstone in Regional Final, 37-18 over No. 9 Manistee in District Final.
Players to watch: RB/DB Eli Graves, 6-3/175 sr. (1,654 yards/20 TDs rushing, 448 yards/5 TDs receiving); RB/LB Skylar Workman, 6-1/165 sr. (521 yards/9 TDs rushing, 3 TDs receiving); QB/DB Gavyn Merchant, 5-8/150, sr. (1,205 yards/17 TDs passing); OL/DL Caleb Bott, 6-0/195 sr. (Statistics do not include Semifinals.)

Outlook: Kingsley’s first Semifinal since 2019 has turned into its first championship game trip in nearly two decades as the Stags improved to a combined 58-11 since Wooer returned to lead the program in 2018 – he previously coached Kingsley from 1999-2007 before taking over at Traverse City West for a decade. The Stags finished second in the NMFC Legends to Ogemaw Heights, losing 35-12 in Week 7 in their matchup with an Almont common opponent, and also fell just short 42-39 to Division 3 Gaylord in Week 2. No other opponent has gotten close, and the four playoff games alone have been won on average by 31 points. Workman scored four more rushing touchdowns in the Semifinal win over Reed City, and while Graves has done most of the damage this season five Kingsley runners have rushed for at least five touchdowns and four have caught at least three touchdown passes.

Division 7Division 7

Record/Rank: 11-2, No. 9
Coach: Chad Brandt, second season (17-7)
League finish: Tied for third in Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2007), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 32-21 over No. 2 North Muskegon in Semifinal, 50-14 over No. 7 Charlevoix in District Final, 44-26 over Division 6 No. 7 Gladstone.
Players to watch: RB/DE Landan Bardowski, 5-9/180 sr. (1,431 yards/27 TDs); WR/DB Tanner Theuerkauf, 6-3/175 soph. (392/7 TDs receiving); QB/DB Trevor Theuerkauf, 5-11/175 sr. (1,636 yards/21 TDs passing, 1,133 yards/17 TDs rushing); TE/LB Eli Beal, 6-2/190, sr. (343 yards/4 TDs receiving).

Outlook: Menominee is headed back to the Finals for the first time since 2016, when it finished Division 5 runner-up, and gives the West-PAC a finalist for the second year in a row after Negaunee finished Division 6 runner-up last season. The Maroons’ only losses this fall were to the Miners and Division 5 Kingsford, and Menominee opened this season with one of the most impressive defensive stretches in the state giving up only six points with four shutouts over its first five games. All 11 wins were by at least 11 points.

Record/Rank: 12-1, No. 1
Coach: Herb Brogan, 44th season (407-95)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic High School League AA
Championship history: 12 MHSAA titles (most recent 2022), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 35-7 over No. 3 Millington in Semifinal, 21-14 over No. 6 Clinton in Regional Final, 26-0 over No. 4 Napoleon in District Final, 41-0 over Division 6 No. 10 Michigan Center.
Players to watch: RB/DB Kadale Williams, 6-1/180 jr. (1,641 yards/30 TDs rushing); QB Timmy Crowley, 6-2/180 jr. (1,177 yards/11 TDs passing); OL/DL Luke Smith, 6-4/225 sr.; OL/DL Aiden Pastoriza, 6-7/260 sr.

Outlook: The reigning Division 7 champion also will be playing in its sixth Final in eight seasons, its only loss 24-21 to Division 3 Gaylord in Week 8. The Titans statistically have outperformed last year’s team on both sides of the ball, scoring more points with a game to play and giving up 69 fewer – just 7.1 per game. Junior Isaac Rehberg (5-8/185) is another contributor on both sides of the ball, starting at fullback and defensive tackle and rushing for 12 touchdowns, while senior receiver Gabe King (5-8/165) has rushed for three scores and caught four.

Division 8Division 8

Record/Rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Todd Thieken, second season (27-0)
League finish: First in Tri-County Conference
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2022), one runner-up finish. 
Best wins: 54-6 over No. 8 White Pigeon in Regional Final, 24-14 over No. 10 Hudson in District Final, 45-7 over Union City.
Players to watch: QB/S Tre Eitniear, 5-10/165 fr. (995 yards/15 TDs passing); RB/CB Hunter DeBarr, 6-1/165 sr. (832 yards/12 TDs rushing, 4 TDs receiving); TE/S Kolby Masserant, 6-2/195 sr. (956 yards/13 TDs receiving); RB/LB Jake Iott, 6-1/185 sr. (897 yards/9 TDs rushing).

Outlook: Whiteford has won 27 straight games in reaching its fourth Final over the last eight seasons and haven’t played a single-digit game since Week 3 – and only two all fall. The Bobcats have given up single-digit points eight of the last nine games, led in part by Iott, an all-state first-teamer at linebacker last season. Masserant has six interceptions and DeBarr and senior running back/defensive tackle Drew Knaggs are among other two-way standouts – Knaggs has run for 645 yards and 11 scores, and DeBarr made the all-state second team at running back in 2022. Senior Ryin Ruddy (6-1/185) steps in at quarterback as well and has run for 417 yards and seven touchdowns and thrown for 462 yards and five scores.

Record/Rank: 13-0, No. 2
Coach: Eric Sweeney, fourth season (47-5)
League finish: First in Greater Thumb Conference East
Championship history: Three MHSAA runner-up finishes (most recent 2022).
Best wins: 24-6 over No. 9 Beal City in Semifinal, 41-20 over No. 3 Ithaca in Regional Final, 35-14 (District Final) and 56-20 over Harbor Beach.
Players to watch: QB/DB Evan Peruski, 5-11/185 sr. (389 yards/4 TDs passing, 441 yards/4 TDs rushing); TE/K/P Brett Mueller, 6-2/210 sr. (461 yards/6 TDs receiving, 72-78 XP); RB/LB Canden Peruski, 6-0/210 sr. (1,558 yards/21 TDs rushing); RB/DE Seth Maurer, 6-0/190 sr. (967 yards/18 TDs rushing)

Outlook: Ubly will be playing in its third Final in four seasons, and Evan Peruski started at quarterback during his freshman year trip as well. Last week’s 18-point win over Beal City was the Bearcats’ closest game this season as they’ve outscored their opponents on average 44-10. Mueller became the MHSAA career extra point record holder this fall and added a 54-yard field goal in the Semifinal. Canden Peruski made the all-state first team on defense last season and is one of eight two-way starters. Juniors Collin Osantowski (530 yards/12 TDs rushing) and Luke Volmering (599/11) also have shouldered good shares of a rushing attack that’s gained more than 4,400 yards.

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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.)