By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Stopping the Muskegon High School offense has never been easy.
This year, it’s twice as tough.
The Big Reds, 9-1 and ranked No. 1 in the season-ending Associated Press Division 3 poll, are attacking opponents with a two-headed monster at quarterback – diminutive senior Kalil Pimpleton (5-7, 160) and physically imposing junior La’darius Jefferson (6-2, 210).
“I’m blessed with two great men, two great leaders, at quarterback,” said seventh-year Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, whose team won the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black title. “Using both of them makes us a better team. We don’t go into games with a specific plan for when each will play (quarterback). We see what the defense is doing and how our kids are responding and go from there.”
The result of the dual QB attack has been a Muskegon offense which is averaging 54 points and 428 total yards per game heading into Friday night’s Division 3 District championship game against visiting East Grand Rapids (8-2).
Pimpleton, who has run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and has verbally committed to Virginia Tech, has started all 10 games for the Big Reds.
He is primarily a running threat, regularly taking snaps out of the pistol formation from senior center Devin Sanders and then finding a seam somewhere along the line to squeeze through. “KP,” as he’s known, has carried 101 times for 1,081 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He also has been effective through the air, completing 34 of 66 passes for 639 yards and six more TDs.
“I look at the system we use as a chance for me to use all of my weapons,” said Pimpleton, who also has three punt returns for touchdowns on his resume. “It doesn’t matter if I am at QB or in the slot. My character doesn’t change, and my focus doesn’t change.”
As good as Pimpleton has been, there have been times in recent years where opponents have bottled up Muskegon’s running quarterbacks.
One example was the 2014 Division 3 championship game at Ford Field, where Orchard Lake St. Mary’s shut down the Big Reds in a 7-0 victory. Another was last year’s Division 2 Regional championship game at Lowell, where Pimpleton and the Muskegon attack got stuck in the mud in a 36-7 loss.
If that same scenario begins to unfold this fall, Muskegon offensive coordinator Brent White has a Plan B.
And what a Plan B it is.
Jefferson, who has the look of Cam Newton and the big arm to match, presents a whole new set of challenges for opposing defenses when he enters the game, which is normally around the Big Reds’ third offensive series. Jefferson brings a deep vertical passing threat, mixed with the size and strength to run over linebackers.
“I always tell myself that I can’t be stopped – that’s the mentality I like to play with,” said Jefferson, who also has delivered some big hits this fall during limited playing time at outside linebacker. “I just want to thank my coaches for using a two-QB system. Now we’ve got two hungry guys trying to win a state title.”
The benefits of Muskegon’s dual quarterback offense were apparent in last week’s 63-14 Division 3 Pre-District victory over visiting Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern.
Muskegon’s offense struggled briefly in the early going before Jefferson ignited the Big Reds and their crowd with a 56-yard TD pass to Pimpleton, who had moved out to slot receiver. Near the end of the first quarter, Jefferson scored on a 2-yard run.
In the second quarter, it was back to Pimpleton at QB and he led a scoring drive, ultimately sprinting in from five yards out. And then it was back to Jefferson, who hit standout senior wide receiver Jacorey Sullivan on a 44-yard bomb over the top to complete Muskegon’s first-half scoring.
“The idea is that we have a system and our kids know how to play with either quarterback,” explained Fairfield. “If we do it right, it puts much more pressure on the defense, not knowing what they are going to get.”
Jefferson finished the win over Forest Hills Northern 7 of 8 passing for 175 yards and three touchdowns, along with 11 rushes for 91 yards and two more touchdowns. For the season, Jefferson has completed 42 of 69 passes for 724 yards and 15 touchdowns, against just two interceptions. He has rushed 66 times for 534 yards and 10 TDs.
The two quarterbacks are by far Muskegon’s top two rushers in an offense that lines up with four receivers on most downs. The lone starter in the backfield is senior Division I linebacker prospect Andrew Ward (6-1, 210), who is a devastating lead blocker. In recent weeks, the Big Reds have started to hurt opponents with jet sweeps featuring speedy juniors Da’vion McCall, Clinton Jefferson and Lonnie Clark Jr.
Fairfield, whose team has ripped off eight straight wins after a Week 2 loss to pass-happy Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson, has guided Muskegon to MHSAA Finals three times in his first six years as head coach. The Big Reds have failed to take that final step on each of those occasions, falling to Birmingham Brother Rice in 2012 and 2013 and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2014.
Given that recent heartbreak, the Big Reds have made it clear since Day 1 that the only acceptable outcome this season is an MHSAA title. The next challenge is a dandy matchup in Friday’s District championship game between two of the top tradition-rich programs in Michigan high school football history.
Muskegon is the state’s winningest with 816 wins and 17 state titles, including five in the MHSAA playoff era. East Grand Rapids, meanwhile, has won 11 championships since the playoffs began in 1975, including five in a row from 2006 to 2010. The Pioneers have won seven straight this fall after stumbling to a 1-2 start.
The two powers have played only two times in history, with Muskegon winning both times.
“We need to come out and play our game,” said Pimpleton. “We believe in our coaches and that they will put us in the best spots to win. That’s really all that matters. We can’t lose sight that no matter who is out there, that is our one goal.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon quarterback La'darius Jefferson picks up yards on the ground this season against Byron Center. (Middle) Kalil Pimpleton, here following through on a pass, also is a threat to run. (Jefferson photo courtesy of Muskegon football program, Pimpleton photo by Tim Reilly.)
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.)